U.S.-Japan: A Step Closer to Resolving the Impasse over Futenma
May 25, 2010
Q1: What’s the latest?
A1: On May 23, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited Okinawa for the second time this month and explained his conclusion that a controversial U.S. Marine base should be relocated on the island, reneging on a campaign promise to move the base off of Okinawa. After considering various proposals since assuming office last fall, Hatoyama has reportedly decided to move forward in principle with an agreement the United States and Japan reached in May 2006 to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, currently in an urban area in central Okinawa, to a less populated area on the northern side of the island. The U.S. and Japanese governments have been engaged in working-level talks for some time, and rumors of an agreement spread last week just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conferred with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Prime Minister Hatoyama in Tokyo on May 21. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is scheduled to continue consultations with Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Washington today, and Japanese media reports have suggested the two governments are working on a joint statement outlining an agreement on Futenma, which could be released by the end of this week.
Q2: Is a detailed agreement imminent?
A2: The 2006 agreement called for a Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) to be housed at Camp Schwab near the town of Nago, but details regarding the location of a new runway and the construction method may be the subject of ongoing consultations between the two governments. Hatoyama also would like to move some training exercises off of Okinawa but has struggled to identify viable alternatives. The U.S. side might also have to revise the budget for the Futenma relocation to reflect any modifications that may be agreed upon.
Q3: What are the prospects for implementation?
A3: Secretary of State Clinton noted during a press conference in Tokyo last week that any agreement should be operationally viable and politically sustainable. One can question whether Hatoyama will follow through on the latter given his standing domestically. Okinawan public opinion is overwhelmingly against the 2006 relocation plan, and that opposition could intensify now that Hatoyama has backtracked on his promise to remove the Futenma facility from Okinawa after raising expectations since his election campaign last summer. Further, Okinawa will elect a new governor in November, and relocation efforts could be stymied if an anti-base candidate prevails. Hatoyama’s recent decision also proved risky politically in that a member of his ruling coalition, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), vehemently opposed relocation within Okinawa and is now threatening to quit the coalition in protest. The prime minister’s approval rating currently hovers between 20 and 25 percent, and recent polls point to indecisiveness and his handling of the Futenma issue as key explanatory factors. Hatoyama faces an election for the Upper House of the Diet (parliament) this July and could be forced to step down if his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) fares poorly. In short, the unstable political situation in Japan is a wild card in this latest effort at base relocation.
Q4: What is the bottom line?
A4: Hatoyama’s decision appears to have enabled Washington and Tokyo to move from “whether” to “how” on Futenma relocation, and this is an important step after months of uncertainty. It may take some time to work out the details, but even an outline would help generate momentum toward a comprehensive agreement in advance of President Obama’s expected visit to Japan in late November. The impasse over Futenma has proven deflating, but there does appear to be some chance of progress on security cooperation this year, an important milestone as it marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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