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Futenma = Alliance?

by Sheila A. Smith
December 11, 2009

What a difference a week makes. Going into last week, there was little indication that Japan’s prime minister would effectively end the bilateral effort to find a solution to the Futenma replacement challenge by year’s end. There seemed to be traction with the working group created to handle the consultations, and even though much work remained, no one expected Prime Minister Hatoyama’s abrupt change in tack on Futenma discussions.

Many factors are at play. The first and most obvious is the ambivalence over the Henoko option itself. The prime minister ordered his foreign and defense ministers to come up with alternatives – and for many of us that signals an end to the idea of building a new runway for the U.S. Marines. Another obvious consideration was that, clearly, the prime minister’s domestic coalition rose up to confront him. The Social Democrats effectively threatened to walk out of the coalition, and the DPJ felt it could not afford the chaos that might bring given the immense effort to create the government budget and to get the economy back on track. So, by week’s end, the spirits of the U.S.-Japan working group have been devastated, and the relationship between the Hatoyama government and the Obama Administration in tatters.

This week my sense is that both sides are breathing deeply, and trying to think through options. Cabinet officials have clearly shifted focus to the task of reducing the burden on Okinawa’s residents. Today, Japan’s defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, on a TBS news interview  said he thought it unlikely that his government could gain the local support needed to be able to build the replacement runway in northern Okinawa that the U.S. government wants. Residents of Nago City are now rethinking their support for the proposed construction at Camp Schwab along the Henoko coastline. With a January mayoral election in Nago City heating up to be a referendum on the relocation issue, it seems likely that the prime minister’s office, the Kantei, is seeking an alternative location for the Marine Corps.

Moreover, a few days ago, Japan’s cabinet secretary,  Hirofumi Hirano, announced a cabinet decision that Japan’s priority was to reduce the dangers associated with the Futenma base itself rather than with relocation. His meeting with the relevant cabinet officials, including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Minister for Okinawa Affairs Seiji Maehara, produced this conclusion on December 8th. But on the same day,  Kitazawa said that Japan would allocate the requisite budget for relocation in order to demonstrate to the United States that the Hatoyama government was acting in good faith.

But for the U.S.-Japan alliance, my sense is that this government wants an overall review of the U.S. bases in Japan, and that the longer term aim may very well turn out to be a rethinking of the U.S. presence there over time. For now, however, this time out may be the perfect opportunity to do some real soul searching about the dynamics of the U.S.-Japan relationship over the past three months. A more considered approach by Washington is much needed, but also much needed is some clarity from Tokyo.

A discussion of dynamics inside Okinawa to come next week……..

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