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Yankees, Go Home’: US-China Rift Rattles South Korea” was the banner headline of the NY Times international section October 19. It reported a protest of thousands of South Koreans who fear war between the US and China will impact them. This is just the latest sign of escalating trouble for US war plans in east Asia. In Okinawa, where over 70% of the US military presence in Japan is stationed, protests are constant. Okinawans have voted overwhelmingly, year after year, against the US bases. In a 2019 referendum, over 72% voted against construction of a new US military base, and last month Governor Denny Tamaki was re-elected on a platform opposing the base.

Hideki Yoshikawa, director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, said at a recent Codepink event that “As tensions between China and the US are intensifying, Japan as a client state of the US, is taking advantage of this situation trying to push its militarization and the militarization of Okinawa. Unfortunately this fear mongering about ‘Chinese threats’ is spreading through the Japanese government and major media outlets.” In March, the government of Japan declared Okinawa a “combat zone” in the event of a Taiwan contingency. Okinawa is closer geographically to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo, Japan’s capital.

The war danger is not Okinawans’ only concern. Yoshikawa recently sent a letter signed by over 100 organizations and 40 US state and local elected officials addressed to US Congress, saying the bases are a constant hell for Okinawan residents. The letter called on the US to honor its 25-year-old promise to close US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station and cancel construction of a new US base at Henoko, Okinawa. Yoshikawa highlighted the massive local opposition to the bases and underscored the importance of upholding the principle of democracy and environmental justice in Okinawa. There is non-stop rage among Okinawans against the intrusive military presence, sexual violence, ecological catastrophe, and settler dispossession by the US military.

Over 55 anti-war, labor, and civil-society organizations in Okinawa and Japan signed the anti-base letter, as well as 45 groups in the US and around the world. Signers among US organizations included DSA International Committee, Codepink, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, The Red Nation, RootsAction, Empire Files, and World Beyond War. DSA helped organize US signers and has committed to fight to close US foreign military bases and demand reparations for the human and environmental destruction they’ve caused. Forty DSA affiliated state and municipal elected officials signed to support the letter, including Jabari Brisport, Nikil Saval, Zohran Mamdani, Tiffany Cabán, Ruth Buffalo, David Morales, Julia Salazar, and Tanya Vyhovsky. These organizations and US politicians urged members of Congress to heed calls from Okinawa and support their demands to close these dangerous and destructive US military bases, which only serve the interests of war profiteers.

Jabari Brisport, New York State Senator and DSA representative, recently shared a message of support: “I stand in solidarity with people in Japan and across the world who are opposing construction of this base. US imperialism is in direct opposition to our fight for a more just and equitable world. Our movement must be internationalist. There is a wide coalition of progressive forces in Japan who are opposing construction of this base, including socialists, labor unions, anti-war organizers, and local indigenous activists. This project doesn’t only affect Okinawa. It impacts us here in New York and across the entire United States. The Biden administration requested $813 billion for the next National Defense Authorization Act. That would put total annual military spending at $1.5 trillion. That is an unfathomable amount of money to spend on imperialism and war mongering, instead of caring for our communities at home. This is also about climate justice. Constructing a new base will increase the US military’s already out-of-control carbon emissions and destroy a local ecosystem. As it stands, the US military is the world’s largest non-state polluter – 140 states combined pollute less than the US military.”

Constant fear

“Residents living around Futenma Air Station live in constant fear of objects falling from US military aircraft,” the anti-base letter said. “Worse, they have to live in fear of aircraft crashing on them.” Noise levels are so bad that “Japanese courts have repeatedly ruled that the plaintiffs have suffered physically and mentally from aircraft noise pollution.” Residents are also exposed to cancer-causing chemicals due to accidental spills and discharge of chemicals, which have also poisoned the water, both for drinking and for agriculture. As if all this were not enough, the area is an earthquake zone. Four major quakes with a magnitude of 6 or worse on the Richter scale, have hit the area since 2001 – most recently a magnitude 7.2 tremor in 2010.

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Veterans For Peace member Doug Lummis, who has lived in Okinawa for many years, recalls that in 2003, then-US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station “the most dangerous base in the world.” Lummis wrote in 2018 that “Helicopter parts are regularly falling into residential areas.” Lummis quotes defenders of the base who say, “Well, it was the Okinawans who built their houses next to the base, of their own will. So the danger is their fault.” But, he adds, “the base was originally built right after the Battle of Okinawa [in 1945], when the Okinawan people were being held in concentration camps. The military bulldozed the villages and farmlands that were there, expropriated the land, and built the base.”

Part of a long history

While the US “pivot to Asia” is recent, dating from 2009, its roots can be traced back at least to the 19th century. In a recent DSA International Committee webinar, Mark Tseng-Putterman explained that “the US state of permanent war in Asia and the Pacific today is in fact the inevitable product of a centuries-long project of US hegemony in the Pacific.” In a major article in Monthly Review, he cites “various tactics of empire: from settler colonialism in Hawai’i to colonial war in the Philippines to the formation of an ‘open-door’ empire in a fabled China market… as the crown jewel of US Pacific manifest destiny.” Now we’re “in a moment in which the ‘Indo-Pacific’ reemerges as the primary theater of US militarism, and China in particular emerges as the definitive ‘official enemy’ around which the project of US Pacific hegemon coheres.” He refutes the concept of an “inter-imperial rivalry” between the US and China, which gives false justification of the US militarized posture as “’defensive’ in the face of ostensible Chinese belligerence.” He says this “lazy condemnation of ‘inter-capitalist competition’… obscures the centuries-long project of US Pacific hegemony” that is now being “reconsolidated, operationalized, and expanded” in a hostile Cold War posture aimed at China.

The US now has 375,000 Indo-Pacific Command personnel scattered across hundreds of military bases in the west Pacific. “Endemic sexual violence, ecological catastrophe, and settler dispossession in Hawai’i, Guam, the Mariana Islands and Okinawa continue under a geostrategic discourse that renders places and peoples mere ‘island chains’ bound in strategic containment of China.” The official US purpose for these bases is “protection of US allies from Chinese hegemonic aspirations.” The reality is simpler: these are forward operations in a long-term US policy of “containment,” and very concrete preparations for war.

Grassroots opposition to US bases

The pivot to Asia faces “multiple, overlapping grassroots movements opposing the existential threat continued US militarization poses to local livelihoods, cultural practices, and ecologies.” The intense anti-base activism in Okinawa and Korea is matched by Chamorro activists in Guam, whose lives are totally dominated by the US base there, about 2,500 miles east of the Philippines, and roughly equidistant to the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. The anti-base fight in Guam has much in common with Puerto Ricans’ battle to force closure of the US bombing base on the island of Vieques. Hawaian opposition to US military presence poisoning local water supply also recently culminated in plans to close the Navy’s Red Hill military fuel facility. These fights are anti-colonial, just as in the Philippines, where continuous anti-Marcos and anti-US mobilizations forced major bases there to close in the 1990s, though US troops are back today and the struggle continues.

The anti-base mobilizations and activism face constant harassment and repression, from both local authorities and their US backers. Yamashiro Hiroji, head of the Okinawa Peace Research Center, was arrested in October 2016 on trivial offenses, and held in solitary confinement for 152 days – long past the Japanese legal limit of 23 days, in violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. His requests for bail were denied, despite a massive campaign for his release. “During my time in the cells, the interrogation was conducted on an almost daily basis,” he said in an interview with Asia-Pacific Journal. “Each time I was moved the few meters from my cell to the interrogation room I was handcuffed and a cord fastened around my waist… Each time I was moved I was subject to body search.” The Japanese government made this leader of the anti-base movement an example and a warning to others. But Yamashiro Hiroji’s answer is “There will be no stopping the Okinawan resistance.”

The prospects for winning a shut-down of US bases in east Asia are challenging, but activists remain committed to organizing for it. On October 27 the Pentagon issued a new National Defense Strategy document highlighting Russia and China as its key rivals. The report said the Pentagon would continue to build up bases and “expand US access” in the western Pacific region. But the rights of local people throughout the region are arrayed against the bases. They make it clear the US role is exactly the opposite of defending human rights and democracy.