It is just three years since North and South Korean leaders met and signed an agreement to cooperate and work out a path to peaceful unification of their divided peninsula, and specifically to turn the contested West Sea area into a zone of peace and cooperation; two years since Barack Obama came to office in the United States promising a better world, progress toward nuclear disarmament, an end to war, dialogue with all “enemies,” and just over one year since Hatoyama Yukio became Prime Minister of Japan, also promising change, offering the vision of an East Asian Community, equi-distant diplomacy with China and the United States, and meeting amicably with the leader of China to propose turning the South China Sea into a “Sea of Fraternité” (Yuai no umi).
A new government in Korea in 2008 quickly swept aside the South-North Agreements, and new governments in the US and Japan in 2009 also turned away from the peaceful change they had promised. Obama continued, and intensified the two wars he inherited (while engaging in pressures and threats that suggested the possibility of a third and even a fourth, in Iran and North Korea), and continued with illegal detentions and assassinations; and Japan declared the US alliance its core, moving simultaneously towards participation in collective war-rehearsing exercises that are plainly unconstitutional, pressing for construction of a new base for the Marines in Henoko, and reinforcing the SDF military presence on the outlying islands.
Three major events punctuated the year about to end. In March, the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in waters of the West Sea, with loss of 46 sailors. A South Korea-led international investigation team blamed North Korea for a deliberate and unprovoked attack. The investigation report was later shown to be full of holes and contradictions, but the US and its allied governments and the international media endorsed it and dismissed North Korean protest. On 7 September, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coastguard vessel in the contested waters off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and again the US-led global coalition (and its media), without hesitation or qualification, blamed China for belligerence. Yet, by arresting the ship’s captain the Government of Japan was unilaterally abrogating the 1978 agreement with China’s Deng Xiaoping to shelve the dispute for a future generation, and by insisting there was no question of Japan’s incontestable sovereignty, it was insulting both China and Taiwan who also claimed sovereignty. Then, on 23 November, a North Korean artillery barrage killed four people on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and again South Korea, together with the US and Japan, blamed North Korea for “unprovoked aggression.” Yet this was the third day of huge South Korean war games (70,000 soldiers, 500 warplanes, 90 helicopters, 50 warships) conducted just a few kilometres off North Korean shores, in which they had fired over 3,000 rounds of artillery into surrounding, contested waters and ignored North Korean protests before North Korea retaliated. Shortly after the exchange of fire, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington sailed into the Yellow Sea, to continue exercises that plainly were designed to step up the intimidation of North Korea, and provoke China as well by entering uninvited into the Yellow Sea.
A week later, the US and Japan chose to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ampo by the largest war games they had ever conducted (44,000 soldiers, 40 warplanes, 60 warships, with again the George Washington in pride of place), rehearsing anti-missile warfare and the ‘re-capture” of islands taken by an “enemy. The latter were plainly predicated on a Chinese attack on either Senkaku/Diaoyu or an outlying Okinawan island.
As North Korea bashing and China intimidation escalated, North Korea’s overtures for negotiations in which it would trade its nuclear programs for guarantees of security and a peace treaty to end the 57-year long frozen standoff, were contemptuously dismissed. The US, Japan, and South Korea met the North Korean and Chinese call for negotiations with stepped-up military pressure. Hostility, fear, and hyper-nationalism (or what I call in the Japanese case zokkoku nationalism) spread. Military alliances were reconfirmed and reinforced, as on the eve of all recent wars. It is common for Japanese leaders to refer to the US as the stabilizer, the supplier of the oxygen of security, the bulwark of democracy and human rights, and to blame (in this region) China and North Korea for aggressive and destabilizing behaviour. Recent events in particular make clear that that is false and tendentious.
In this darkening climate of rising militarism and unreason, Okinawa constituted a tiny beacon of hope and resistance. From the Nago City mayoral election of January to the prefectural Governor election of November, the Okinawan people intervened decisively to insist on the constitutional principles of the sovereignty of the people (shuken zai min) and the centrality of peace.
Okinawa showed the power of citizen-led democracy and commitment to constitutional principle, and in the gathering gloom of irrational chauvinism pointed towards a better future, predicated on overcoming its position as “Keystone of the Pacific” for US military planners. Either that Okinawan spirit spreads to Okinawa’s neighbours, or else Okinawa will find itself once again engulfed in militarism and the catastrophe of war.
Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, and author of many previous texts on Okinawa-related matters. His Client State: Japan in the American Embrace was published in English (New York: Verso) in 2007 and in expanded and revised Japanese, Korean, and Chinese versions in 2008. He is an emeritus professor of Australian National University.