May 27, 2024

As we begin a new year, many military service members and their families have shifted focus to an upcoming summer move. For those moving, the opportunity to learn and perform a new job, make new friends or renew past friendships, and experience a new location can be exciting. For many Marines, an overseas move to Okinawa, Japan, will be their summer destination. Okinawa is a great location with much to offer for both Marines and their families. However, stability in the Asia-Pacific region is diminishing as a direct result of aggressive policy and actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a result, Marines must now consider family safety as a factor in their upcoming move.

It’s one thing for a Marine to deploy to a region with increasing aggression from a rising adversary; it’s what we sign up to do. It’s quite another to add concern about the safety of your family in a foreign land.

For decades, family safety concerns at a new duty station have not been a top consideration. Professionally, I am excited about the opportunity of returning to Okinawa and joining the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF). As the Marine Corps’ main effort, I can count on a tour that is demanding and personally rewarding. In my previous Okinawa tour, a decade ago, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  Unfortunately, this time feels different as I view this upcoming move through the lens of husband and father. I find myself more concerned than excited.

The source of my concern lies in the aforementioned actions of the PRC. Daily headlines point to actions and rhetoric by PRC leadership indicating their determination to upset both the regional and global status quo. Whether it be hypersonic missile tests, island fortifications in the South China Sea, or threatening to unify Taiwan, the PRC’s actions have undeniably threatened regional security. It is clear the PRC is on the move, focused on achieving the “China Dream” of ultimately surpassing the U.S. to become the preeminent global power or “center of the world.”

The U.S. military presence on Okinawa is important to both the United States and regional allies and partners. In fact, this small island off the southern tip of Japan is home to many of the U.S. bases in the Indo-Pacific region. Since the end of the Second World War, the forward U.S. presence of military forces on Okinawa has been key to regional stability by deterring aggression and providing a quick response capability for regional combat and humanitarian operations.

While the United States views our military presence in Okinawa as a force for good, the PRC’s perspective is decidedly much different.

Due to its strategic importance to the U.S. and the PRC’s unwavering pursuit of the “China Dream,” it is not unreasonable to think that Okinawa could find itself caught in the proverbial crosshairs.

Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet believes Okinawa could be problematic for the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), should they attempt to retake and forcibly unify Taiwan; according to NPR, “Koda and other analysts believe China might attack Yonaguni and possibly other nearby islands to control approaches to Taiwan.” Recently, the CCP’s aggressive actions have gone beyond typical hyperbole, as Chinese government vessels have been caught entering Japanese territorial waters more frequently and staying for longer durations. While territorial disputes over islands and waterways continue between Japan and the PRC, one can’t help but wonder if we are at the crossroads of a flashpoint.

As regional tensions intensify, I find myself thinking about a 2010 quote from the former Marine Forces Pacific Commander, Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder (Ret.): “All of my Marines on Okinawa are willing to die if it is necessary for the security of Japan.” His comment is exactly right, and the concept is something service members willingly face each and every day — but I can’t help but think the point resonates more for Okinawa Marines in 2022 than it did for those in 2010.

The intent of my writing is not to incite fear or call for policy change; rather, it is to share an example of the sacrifice Marines and other U.S. service members face. I am certain Marine Corps leadership would send dependents home should intelligence reports indicate an imminent threat to those on the island of Okinawa; however, with the PRC’s growing confidence and unpredictability, inbound families should take a closer look at potential threats to safety.

Typically, decisions to be a “geographic bachelor” — that is, to leave family members in the U.S. while the service member moves to the forward location — revolve around personal finance or family education considerations. Family safety and security have not previously been major decision factors: they are today.

Ultimately, Marines and their families have a choice. That choice will be to decide whether to be with one’s family, which most desire, or to expose the family to potential harm.

Gen. Stalder was correct when he said Marines are willing to die in defense of Japan. Marines and other U.S. service families now have to consider if they are willing to subject their families to the same standard. 

It’s a tough choice which only highlights the sacrifices military families make day in and day out.

Lt. Col. Michael E. Feuquay, U.S. Marine Corps, is a Hoover National Security Affairs Fellow. This piece has been cleared by the U.S. Marine Corps for release; the views expressed here are those of the author and do not constitute endorsement by the U.S. Marine Corps, the Defense Department, or any part of the U.S. government.