Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Deal's a Deal

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week staked out a hard line position over the relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station in Okinawa to another location on the southern island during his recent trip to Japan to prepare the way for President Barack Obama’s expected visit next month.

As far as Washington is concerned, the elaborate plan to reshuffle troops on Okinawa and lower the island’s overall military “footprint”, which it negotiated with the previous government headed by the Liberal Democratic Party, is a done deal.

The U.S. will entertain only minor changes, such as shifting the proposed new runway a few meters further off shore. Inaction on relocation of the air station would jeopardize the agreed relocation of 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam, Gates said.

Gate’s remarks have elevated what was a fairly obscure technical matter into a major issue between Japan and the United States and the first great test of freshman Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s alliance management skills. Hatoyama entered office last month when his party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won an historic majority.

Futenma has been an American base since the end of World War II and a Marine Corps air station since 1960. It is currently home for about 3,000 Marines and an air group consisting mainly of helicopters. Over the years, the neighboring city of Ginowan has burgeoned from a village into a metropolis, now virtually surrounding the base and its runway.

It took years of negotiations for Washington and Tokyo to agree on a plan to realign the bases on Okinawa, a relatively small island which today supports about three quarters of the US military manpower in the country, so it is not surprising that Washington doesn’t want to start anew with a new government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, anticipating a possible DPJ election victory as far back as last February, made sure to get the then government of prime minister Taro Aso to sign on the dotted line when she visited Japan in her first swing through Asia. The new government must honor the deal it predecessor made, she says now.

When it was in opposition, the DPJ made some sweeping demands about Okinawa. It opposed the idea of closing Futenma and building a new air station in northern part of the island on reclaimed (mostly coral) land. It wanted to move the air station out of Okinawa entirely. The party also criticized the $6 billion that Tokyo promised to help pay to relocate 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam.

However, as the election approached and prospect of holding power became more and more a reality, the DPJ has softened its position. The party’s official election manifesto merely called vaguely for re-examining future options for American bases in Japan.

In early October, Hatoyama said some things that made it seem that he could be persuaded to accept the agreement reached between Japan and the U.S. including relocating Futemna somewhere within Okinawa prefecture. Almost immediately he had to back pedal in the face of criticism from his coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, and others in his own party.

“While bearing in mind the wishes of the people in Okinawa, I will negotiate with the U.S. and come to a final conclusion in the matter,” the PM said. He said his government wanted to look into various unspecified “options” and would not feel obliged to determine its final policy by the time Obama visits.

One of the options might be to move the Marines to the massive Kadena Air Force Base. The base already is crowded, but an intriguing story was floated a month ago suggesting that the U.S. might withdraw the F-16 wing at Misawa air base in northern Japan and part of the F-15 Wing based at Kadena, The latter’s removal might open opportunities to relocate the Marine helicopters there.

The political forces favoring closing Futenma and against building a substitute in Okinawa prefecture are formidable. They include a most of the prefectural assembly, all four Diet members from Okinawa, most of Hatoyama’s large contingent of freshmen back benchers in the Diet, his coalition partner, the SDP and 68 percent of Okinawan people, according to recent polls.

A permanent tent city of protestors has been camped out on the beach at Hinoko township near where the new runway would be built, essentially daring the government to try and move them. How a determined minority, augmented by sympathizers, can frustrate Washington and Tokyo’s plans can be seen from two past examples.

In the 1950s the Americans determined to extend the runway at Tachikawa Air Base in the Tokyo suburbs, a move necessary to accommodate high performance jet aircraft. Protestors camped out at one end of the runway daring anyone to remove them literally for years. Eventually, the Americans gave up and moved out. Tachikawa is now a park dedicated, ironically, to Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito.

The dogged opposition of a handful of farmers, supported by outside admirers, permanently crippled Tokyo’s grand plan to build a major international airport in the rice fields of Narita far outside of Tokyo. Only this month has Narita opened an extended second runway, of a projected three runways, more than 40 years after the airport opened.

It may be that Secretary Gates was playing “bad cop” to President Obama’s “good cop” routine when he visits Tokyo on the first leg of his Asian trip in mid-November. That would permit the president to allow the new Japanese government to gain face by graciously reopening the negotiations. Meanwhile, after due reflection, Hatoyama graciously concedes the need to build a replacement air field in Okinawa. Everybody is happy.

That is one possible scenario. It is also possible that the American side will dig in its heels on the proposition that a deal is a deal, and decide that, for the sake of future alliance, it must demonstrate early on who is still the boss.


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