Decision on Marine Okinawa Base Imminent
July Elections Could Allow Ruling Party To Act Unilaterally
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Japanese and U.S. officials met March 26 to discuss possibly moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, but legislative elections scheduled for July could change the political dynamic of the controversial issue.
Following the meeting between U.S. Ambassador John Roos and Japan Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a news release: “Today, the Government of Japan shared its current thinking with regard to the Futenma issue, which we will carefully consider. The United States and Japan will continue to work together as allies in a spirit of partnership as we move forward to resolve this issue.” Tokyo has previously promised a decision by the end of the month.
Military-to-military relations have soured between Japan and the United States since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power in 2009 elections. The DPJ’s victory rocked relations with the Pentagon, when party members openly threatened to expel U.S. forces from the island and rewrite the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The DPJ and other parties railed against a previous agreement to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new airfield to be constructed along the coastline at Camp Schwab in Nago, also in Okinawa. Critics complained the new runway would damage the island’s reef.
Two principal plans now being debated in Tokyo involve the construction of a runway in the inland area of Camp Schwab and the construction of an artificial island runway just off White Beach in Uruma District.
Christopher Hughes, a Japan military specialist and the author of the book “Japan’s Remilitarisation,” said the inland runway at Camp Schwab is getting a lot of attention. “This might be the plan that goes forward, but I do not see it actually flying because the Okinawans don’t like it, and I imagine the Pentagon is not going to like it unless it is told to like it by someone higher up.” Ultimately, after long and difficult negotiations, “I think Futenma could end up staying in Futenma,” he said.
One of the most controversial statements was the proposal by a DPJ ally, the far-left Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), that the base be moved to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, almost 1,400 miles from Okinawa.
The SDPJ has “taken interest in Tinian and Saipan as possible sites for Marines,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo. They are “keen to find an alternative site outside of Okinawa and out of Japan.” However, if they are successful, “it will surely weaken the U.S. position in the western Pacific.”
A U.S. defense analyst based in Tokyo said there is some irony in the current predicament. The United States had complained for years that the LDP overlooked responsibility for Japan’s defense needs and relied too much on the U.S. military. Now, with the DPJ in control, there is no coherent policy to deal with the Pentagon. When the administration makes an announcement, “I’m not sure anyone believes them or understands them.”
One reason is that there has been “no serious debate” within the DPJ “regarding the future shape of the security posture due to fear of exposing an ideological confrontation within the party,” said retired Adm. Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of The Okazaki Institute in Tokyo.
“While Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama says the Japan-U.S. alliance remains the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy, his actions do not always follow this principle,” he said. “Hatoyama and his Cabinet members neither fully understand the significance of the alliance, nor share the view on keeping U.S. forces stationed in Japan — a core component of the alliance.”
Upcoming legislative elections in Japan could help ease tensions between Tokyo and Washington over basing issues in Okinawa and calls to rewrite SOFA. Both parties are gearing up for legislative elections to the House of Councillors (upper house) scheduled for July 11.
In the 242-seat House of Councillors, the DPJ has 115 seats and “has a majority with the support of its two minor coalition partners, the SDPJ and the People’s New Party,” Kawamura said.
If the DPJ can secure only seven more seats in the upcoming election, it could pursue “its policies without reserve,” allowing the party to develop a more coherent policy without catering to the SDPJ.
However, DPJ plans could be derailed. The LDP will be attempting to make a comeback by securing enough seats to disrupt DPJ’s power base in the legislature.
“A large-scale political realignment is likely to take place if the DPJ loses in the July election,” Kawamura said.
The return of the LDP to power might be the only way to save defense relations between Japan and the United States, but “only when the LDP can find a powerful leader or transform into a new conservative party which is capable of garnering the support from the majority of the public,” he said.
“Although the Japanese electorate has become increasingly disenchanted with the DPJ, there is little likelihood of the LDP regaining major influence, let alone control of Japanese policymaking,” said Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.