Focus on the Philippines


People Versus Bases: The Philippine and Okinawan Experiences Compared

By Walden Bello

(This article appeared under the author's regular commentary Perspective in Business World, July 7, 2000.)

KYOTO, July 6. The upcoming meeting of the G-8 on July 21-21 is perhaps significant not so much for its agenda but for where it is held: Okinawa. This island the size of Los Angeles is a troubled link in the US’s trans-Pacific military garrison, a place where the vast majority of the people want the Americans out. So publicized have the Okinawans' protests been that the Japanese government offered Nago, a resort city on the island, as the summit site to convince the world that things are back to normal in the US-Japan security relationship.


Located halfway between Manila and Tokyo, this 454-square mile island was described by Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur as the "island-bastion" of America’s "strategic frontier" on the eastern coast of the Asian landmass. To Washington, the US military presence in Okinawa is non-negotiable. Prior to the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1952, hundreds of US military bases dotted Occupied Japan. With the normalization of relations, the US agreed to close down then majority of its bases in mainland Japan, but only if it could transfer their functions to the Okinawa. As a result, Okinawa, which makes up only 0.6 percent of the total land area of Japan, came to host 75 per cent of all US base land in Japan.

Okinawa itself was kept under US military administration while the rest of Japan regained political sovereignty from Allied Occupation. It was only in1972, after massive popular protests that the island reverted back to Japan’s administrative control, though with no change in the status of US forces. 20per cent of Okinawa’s land, much of it seized by force from local property holders, is devoted to US bases. Today, there are 39 bases on this small dot in the Pacific, including Kadena Air Force Base, the largest airfield in East Asia. And, despite overwhelming popular disapproval, the Pentagon wants to add another base: a state-of-the art heliport at Nago--the site of the G-8Summit--to accommodate MV-22 Osprey vertical-take-off-and-landing craft designed for rapid deployment of US Marines.

Tokyo’s Betrayal

What is interesting is that Okinawans, while now again part of Japan, are very ambivalent about the Tokyo government and mainlanders. These feelings are rooted in what Okinawans regard as Tokyo’s sacrificing the people of the island for a suicidal defense against the American advance in order to give time for mainland Japan to prepare for the Allied invasion. Okinawa was the only part of Japan that experienced ground warfare in the Second World War. In 1945, 200,000 civilians--or one out of three Okinawans--perished in the bloody Battle of Okinawa, many of them coerced into group suicides by the Japanese Imperial Army. After this came Tokyo’s acquiescence to Okinawa’s remaining under military administration while the rest of Japan regained political sovereignty in 1952. Then, throughout the next five decades, Tokyo has been seen as cooperating with Washington to foist the bases on Okinawans, despite massive resistance to their presence: in a 1996 referendum following the gruesome rape of a primary school girl by three US soldiers, 91 per cent of voters called for the withdrawal of the bases.

Inevitably, a Filipino visiting Okinawa cannot avoid asking the question why we were able to get rid of US bases while the Okinawans and Japanese appear to permanently saddled with them.

With US troops back in our country thanks to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), 1992, the year the Senate voted to end the lease of the US bases, seems to be light years away. But it was, indeed, a magical moment in our history, when several developments came together to create a unique situation that may never be repeated.

Unique Situation

Most important was that with the collapse of the Soviet state, US military strategy in the Asia-Pacific entered a period of flux. Popular pressure in the US for a "peace dividend" led President George Bush to declare a 10 per cent reduction of US forces in the Asia-Pacific, where there was no visible rival to be contained, with China still being seen as an ally and North Korea regarded as posing no real threat to US regional hegemony.

This political disorientation coincided with increasing questioning in the Pentagon regarding the centrality of Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base. Since the end of the Vietnam War, there had been no US military presence in mainland Southeast Asia to back up. And with advances in airlift and sea lift technology, Subic and Clark became less central in supporting US deployments in the Indian Ocean and Diego Garcia. The Gulf War in 1990, where most troops or materiel were airlifted directly from the US or from bases in Europe underlined this. As a US diplomat in Thailand told me in 1994, because of the "revolution in logistics" plus developments in offshore, mobile basing, the US was, in fact, in a better position to "meet its commitments" in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean than when it still had the bases in the Philippines.

Doubts about the importance of the bases were resolved when Mount Pintatubo erupted in 1991. The volcanic blast, one of the most powerful in the last few centuries, appeared then to US officials to pose both short-term and long-term liabilities to the effective use of the bases.

Another important condition was the conjunction of a strong and unified mass movement and a divided elite. The mass movement against the bases joined the still undivided militant left, also known as the National Democratic Front, to the middle class nationalist movement inspired by Sen. Jose Diokno. This unity at the level of the mass movement contrasted with a fatal split in the ranks of the elite between base opponents like Sen. Jovito Salonga and base proponents like President Corazon Aquino. When the US refused to raise the absurdly low price offered as rent for the bases, the more pragmatic elements in the Senate, like then Senator Joseph Estrada, had no choice but to join their more militant colleagues as a matter of national honor.

This set of circumstances was unique to the Philippine situation in the period 1990-92. In the case of Okinawa and Japan today, the situation is vastly different.

Why Japan is Different

First of all, Okinawa has always been of much more strategic value than the Philippines given its geographical location, which enables the US to project power onto Northeast Asia-- China, the Korean peninsula, mainland Japan, and Soviet Siberia--which occupied the central place in the US Cold War strategy for East Asia.

Second, the US Defense Department has regained its sense of direction following its disorientation in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War. In 1995, the Pentagon’s Strategy Paper for the Asia-Pacific reversed the draw down of US forces decreed by the Bush administration and affirmed the Washington’s role in unilaterally ensuring security in the region. This role has been emphasized by the latest Pentagon Defense Guidance document, entitled "Joint Vision 2020," which, according to a Washington Post report, identifies China as a "peer competitor" to be "contained" and refocuses US global military strategy on the Asia-Pacific instead of Europe.

Third, Tokyo has always fully supported the US presence in Japan and has never dared to go against the US’s wishes in security matters. What many do not realize is that the Japanese government is, in many ways, more colonial in its relationship to Washington than the Philippine government. It is hard to imagine the Japanese Diet doing what the Philippine Senate did in 1992. Aside from the bases in Okinawa, there are about 100 other US bases and facilities in mainland Japan. This military complex is not questioned by the government, which regards the US-Japan Security Treaty that legitimizes its existence as a semi-sacred document.

Whence this slavish attitude?

Its origins may be traced back to the American Occupation of a country that was decisively beaten in war--a period when the conquerors dismantled the Imperial Army and imposed a Western-style parliamentary regime on the Japanese. Subservience was institutionalized in the post-war settlement, which allowed Japan to rebuild its economy, then expand it globally, in return for Japan’s total acquiescence to Washington’s Cold War objectives and strategy.

It is hard to expect any significant departure from the past from a governing elite imprisoned by the psychology of the Occupation. But just as you are about to conclude that the Japanese will never be able to do what we Filipinos did, a ray of hope emerges. This one came in the midst of a conversation I was having with Yukako Onaka, the head of the Teachers’ Union in Takatsuki, a small city in Osaka Prefecture in mainland Japan.

Ray of Hope?

Yukako told me that her union was sending five young teachers to Okinawa for the G-8 meeting. These five would join a delegation of 80 teachers from the Osaka Prefecture who would, in turn, join thousands of other Japanese descending on the island. Each of the more than 1,000 members of the Osaka Prefecture’s Teachers Union was contributing 300 yen (about $30) to finance the mission of their 80 colleagues: to form a "human chain" around Kadena Air Force Base on July 21.

"I wish I could go," Yukako said. "But we felt it would be better to send the younger teachers. They will bring hundreds of messages of solidarity from Osaka."

Maybe, I thought, the Philippine experience might turn out not be that unique after all.


Issue #18
20 July