Friday, November 13, 2009

Obama Sidesteps Bases Issue

It might come under the category of something that couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Less than one week before President Barack Obama arrived in Japan for a visit, a U.S. soldier was taken into custody on Okinawa in connection with a hit and run incident in which an elderly Okinawan man was killed.

It is, of course, incidents like this one, rare though they may be, not to mention noise, congestion and other daily irritants, that led Japan and the U.S. to negotiate a complex deal to lower the American military’s large “footprint” on the southern island, an agreement that has ballooned into a major alliance crisis in some minds.

In 2006 the two governments agreed and in early 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed, an agreement under which Washington would withdraw 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam and close the Futenma Air Station in southern part of the island that is now totally surrounded by urban development.

In return, Tokyo agreed to foot a major portion of the estimated $10 billion relocation costs and build, also at Japan’s expense, the Marines a new high tech heliport on reclaimed land at a another, less populated location on Okinawa in the township of Nago.

In October Secretary of Defense Robert Gates laid down a strong marker saying bluntly that a deal is a deal and that Washington could not entertain any but minor adjustments. Move Futenma to another part of Okinawa or the whole deal is off, he said.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power with one main fixed idea: that government ministers, not the civil servants, should be making policy. On the Futenma issue that has led to some confusion. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa favors implementing the agreement as is. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada wants to merge Futenma with the big U.S. Air force Base at Kadena,

But the final decision will be made by the new prime minister? Yukio Hatoyama, and he has yet to take a position one way or the other, except to say he wants to postpone any decision pending the outcome of a series of national and local elections coming in the new year.

Despite Gates, President Obama and his advisors reluctantly agreed to side step this issue during his visit, which began Saturday and give the new government a little latitude to reach a consensus “It will take several months for the new Japanese administration to become fully functional; we have to be patient,” Said Kurt Campbell, Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

But it is also clear that Washington’s patience will wear thin pretty quickly. Every day that the decision is postponed brings forth more news stories and opinion pieces lamenting the “troubled U.S.-Japanese alliance.” Pretty soon they may become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. Washington wants to wrap this deal up by year’s end.

Hatoyama says he wants to defer a final decision at least until the election for Mayor of Nago, the host town for the new air base, scheduled for January. Beyond that is the July election for the half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament, and next November for the governor of Okinawa.

It is hard to know what Hatoyama expects to gain from delay. Perhaps he is hoping that incumbent Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukaru, who supports the new heliport in his town, will win re-election and give him some political cover for implementing the deal.

But public feelings against the relocation plan are rising rapidly on Okinawa, and even the Nago mayor is beginning to back pedal. “My stance remains unchanged, but the best idea would be to relocate it out of [Okinawa] prefecture,” the mayor told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Hatoyama is obviously hoping that the DPJ will gain a clear majority in the July upper house election, so he is no longer dependent on his coalition partners to pass bills. They include the Social Democratic Party, which is even more strongly opposed to relocation. That would give him some added flexibility.

On the other hand, the longer this matter drags on, the more likely it could become a campaign issue in that election. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party, practically prostrate in the aftermath of its pasting in the general election last August, is beginning to perk up, sensing that the new government might be vulnerable on the charge of endangering the alliance.

The new government, in office for less than two-months, is already losing some support in public opinion polls. They are now around 60 percent favorable, albeit from unsustainable high levels of euphoria immediately after the government formally took office in mid-October. Successes in two upper house by-elections, confirms basic public support for the new government.

The proposed halt in Japan’s contribution to the War on Terror through refueling coalition warships in the Indian Ocean, set to expire in January, is another sore point, although it has not been elevated to the position of a “test” of the alliance in the same way that the Okinawan base issue has.

Most of the refueling this year has been for Pakistani naval vessels, so it is hard to maintain that the operation is “vital” to operations in landlocked Afghanistan. On the other hand, a pullback here might encourage other nations with unpopular troop commitments to withdraw also.

Hatoyama will outline his substitute plan to contribute between $4 and $5 billion dollars over the next five years for expanded job training, agricultural development and other civilian support activities, but he is not prepared to send Self Defense force troops to the region to protect the aid workers.


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