The U.S. military in Japan relocated its reconnaissance drone operations unit to Okinawa despite local objection after its temporary deployment in the southwestern Kyushu region, according to the Japanese government, as part of moves to strengthen surveillance of Chinese activities in nearby waters.
Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters earlier this month that eight MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft began operating at the U.S. Kadena Air Base in the southern island prefecture and will remain stationed there "for an indefinite period."
On Nov. 21 last year, the MQ-9s were tentatively deployed for a year at the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Kanoya Air Base in the southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima, about 600 kilometers northeast of the Kadena base.
The relocation of the MQ-9s is part of Washington's efforts to boost surveillance and intelligence activities near the Asian nation's southwestern Nansei island chain, where Beijing's growing maritime assertiveness has been seen.
The chain, stretching southwest from Kyushu toward Taiwan, includes the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Chinese coast guard vessels have repeatedly entered Japanese waters around the uninhabited islets.
Okinawa has strategic importance due to its proximity to potential geopolitical flashpoints, such as Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island under increasing pressure from Communist-led China.
China views Taiwan as a renegade province to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.
The relocation of the MQ-9 unit with slightly less than 100 personnel has triggered a backlash from Okinawa, home to about 70 percent of the acreage exclusively used by the U.S. military in Japan, even after its reversion in 1972 from U.S. control.
Since the plan was revealed in early October, the Okinawa prefectural government has asked the central government to rethink the relocation to the Kadena base, arguing that the transfer of the unmanned spy planes would increase the burden on Okinawa.
"The efficiency (of U.S. military operations) takes priority, and there has been no mention of how long they will be deployed. The excessive burden of hosting U.S. military bases on locals appears to be disregarded," Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told a press conference in mid-October.