U.S. Military Helicopter Crash Could Further Erode U.S.-Okinawa Relations

HH-60 Pavehawk crash outside Camp Hansen yet another black mark for military.

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A military helicopter crash in Okinawa Monday has given local Japanese people yet another reason to resent the U.S. presence on their island, experts say, at a time when new American policies require a strong Asian presence more than ever.

President Barack Obama's pivot to the Pacific region leans heavily on installations such as the military bases on the Japanese island, including Camp Hansen near where an HH-60 Pavehawk military helicopter crashed on Monday. Three members of the crew survived and the fourth remains missing, according to the Air Force.

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The crash is another black mark on the U.S. presence in Okinawa, which many locals still protest. Kyodo News reported a picture of the crash, citing it as "an accident that could further erode local sentiment toward the U.S. military presence."

"There is a tension between the U.S. military presence there and the Okinawa people that is never going to go away," says Tom Snitch, an Asia security expert and professor at the University of Maryland.

"This is a situation with us in Okinawa that is always going to be contentious," he adds. "As long as we have people and planes there, there are going to be people who don't want us there."

The helicopter that crashed on Monday went down in a wooded area and did not cause any serious injuries, according to initial reports.

But such an incident very well could have occurred in a densely populated area; Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is right in the middle of an urban center in the southern end of the island. This would create a much sharper rift between Japanese authorities and the U.S. government, says Snitch.

"All this does is fuel the tension and creates further controversy among the people in Okinawa who say, 'Why the hell do we have to support this troop presence here?," he says.

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The U.S. government has taken steps to ease the tensions between the military presence and the local population. It has restricted service members from consuming alcohol off-base in an attempt to curb a spate of public drunkenness incidents.

Two U.S. sailors were convicted in March of raping and robbing a local woman. This follows a much more highly publicized and brutal incident in 1995 when two Marines and a sailor were convicted of kidnapping and raping 12-year-old girl.

The introduction of the MV-22 Osprey to the Marine Corps base prompted wide scale protests from Okinawans over concerns that the airplane is unsafe.

The military has employed a media blitz in recent months in an attempt to reduce the negative stigma among locals surrounding the aircraft. Marine Capt. Caleb Eames told U.S. News in July the corps has sent the tilt-rotor aircraft on a tour of Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand for training and exercises.

Thousand of Okinawans have visited and taken test rides, and dozens of observers with the local media and government have flown on missions, he says.

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The first squadron deployed with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. A second squadron of 12 Ospreys just arrived at the end of July, according to a Marine Corps release, and will be test flown in early August.

Since nobody was injured on Monday – and amid greater worldwide concerns for both Japan and the U.S. – Snitch believes this crash likely won't affect relations between the two countries.

"Given North Korea, given China's activity in that part of the Pacific, I don't think we're going to say 'Let's just take our marbles and go home,' " he says.

Some in foreign policy circles have suggested the idea of uprooting from Okinawa and shifting to Guam, though that would likely overwhelm that island's resources for fresh water and the military's ability to dispose of garbage, says Snitch.

"Guam is a long way away. For power projection purposes, you need a U.S. presence in [Okinawa]," he says.

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  • Clarification 11/13/13: U.S. News wishes to clarify that thousands of Okinawans have attended Marine Corps public displays of the MV-22 aircraft, but many fewer have actually participated in test rides. Also, U.S. News used the term “test flights” to describe the routine check flights a military unit performs upon receipt of a new aircraft. This should not be confused with the test flights that are a part of developing a prototype aircraft.