Islanders see Ospreys' arrival as deterrence to Chinese expansionism
By CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 23, 2012
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Safety concerns have dominated public debate over the deployment of Osprey aircraft to Japan. But residents of the country’s southernmost islands see the Marine Corps’ airplane-helicopter hybrid as crucial leverage in a tense territorial dispute with China.
Ishigaki island sits about 140 miles from the coast of Taiwan and holds local jurisdiction over the nearby Senkaku Islands, where a long standoff has erupted in recent weeks as both Japanese and Chinese have staged protests and asserted ownership over the cluster of barren rocks.
“There is no mistake that the deployment of the Ospreys to Okinawa will enhance the defense and deterrence power in the event of an emergency situation in the Senkakus,” Ishigaki resident Eizo Tomoyose said.
About 265 miles to the north, on the island of Okinawa, Japanese government leaders and residents have vehemently opposed Marine Corps plans to upgrade the aging fleet of dual-rotor Sea Knight helicopters based at Futenma air station with Ospreys, which can carry more and fly farther and faster. Crashes, including one that killed two Marines in April in Morocco, have raised local doubts about the aircraft’s safety.
But Tomoyose and other members of an Ishigaki citizens group recently sent petition letters to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and the mayor of Ginowan city, where Futenma is located, urging them to accept the Ospreys as a defense measure. A similar letter was mailed to the mayor of Iwakuni on mainland Japan, where a squadron of Ospreys is parked at a Marine air station awaiting test flights before deployment to Okinawa.
“The Osprey is the key to protect the Senkakus, Japan’s vital territory,” said Ryunosuke Megumi, a retired Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force officer who lives on Okinawa.
The United States has largely remained out of the tug-of-war over the islands, saying only that Japan administers the Senkakus and the two countries should resolve the dispute peacefully. However, a bilateral security treaty obligates the U.S. to protect Japanese territory from threat.
Last week, Japanese authorities arrested 14 Chinese nationals who traveled from Hong Kong to land on the islands and plant a Chinese flag, an incident that sparked outcry and protests in both countries.
The deployment of the Ospreys, which are primarily used to transport Marines, would be crucial for deterring or defending against an attempted occupation by China, Megumi said.
“The Osprey can fly to the Senkakus in 40 minutes from Futenma air station,” he said.
But there’s a wide gap in perception of the Ospreys between residents on the far southern border and those who live in the rest of the country, said Magonori Ohama, also an Ishigaki resident.
“People on the main island (of Okinawa) have little interest or concern about the situation surrounding the Senkakus today,” Ohama said. The aircraft’s planned fall deployment “gives a great sense of security to us, especially those who live in the border town.”
According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News earlier this month, nearly 70 percent of Japan residents indicated negative reactions to the deployment of the Ospreys, though about the same number said they think the presence of U.S. forces in Japan contributes to national security and stability.
Katsuyoshi Tanaka, a Tokyo native and longtime resident of Ishigaki, said the Senkaku landing by Chinese activists last week was a wake-up call to the Japanese public.
“The dispute provided people in Ishigaki with a good opportunity to think twice about opposing the Osprey,” he said. “It’s time for Japan to recover from its peaceful stupor and face the reality surrounding the country’s borders today.”