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Back to square one after Okinawa poll?

Washington calls Futenma move a done deal but officials aren't so confident

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — In early 2005, senior U.S. officials had become fed up with Okinawa.

Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was particularly mad at Okinawa and central government officials for not making progress in relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to northern Okinawa Island, for which a plan had been first formulated in 1996.

Rumsfeld’s anger began in a November 2003 meeting with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine. After listening to the governor talk about the problems caused by having U.S. forces in Okinawa, Rumsfeld said they won’t be stationed where they’re not wanted.

In January 2005, with Japanese media reporting the Futenma relocation plan was all but dead due to local opposition, Rumsfeld reportedly made the comment again during a Pentagon meeting on plans to realign U.S. forces worldwide.

But by last November, the stalemate had been broken, and U.S. President George W. Bush and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met to sign a broad realignment plan for the U.S. forces in Japan, including the relocation of Futenma to a base with two runways to be built in a V-shaped pattern straddling, and extending beyond, the Henoko peninsula at Camp Schwab, farther north on the island, by 2014.

However, U.S. State Department officials and military brass who have dealt with Okinawa said that even though Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials heralded the agreement, it will be the future leaders in Okinawa — not the current lawmakers in Tokyo and Washington — whose approval is needed for the Henoko plan to work.

Without Okinawa’s support, there is less likelihood that the new base will be built, and there are at fears that this will have a domino effect on the rest of the realignment plan for Japan.

Contingent upon the Futenma move to Schwab is the 2014 paring down of the U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa by 8,000 service members and their dependents, who numbered around 9,000 when the pact was reached. They will be relocated to Guam once the new base is operating. After the move, six other facilities will be returned to Okinawa.

And so U.S. officials are watching the Nov. 19 gubernatorial election closely. Officially, the Bush administration says the deal on relocating Futenma is done and it is now up to Japan to honor the particulars — no matter who the governor of Okinawa is.

Unofficially there are two lines of thought among U.S. officials.

“One school of thought says an antibase governor will make life difficult for the U.S. military on Okinawa and cause an indefinite delay in relocating to Henoko, which will create further tensions with the local community,” a U.S. State Department official who deals with Japan said on condition of anonymity.

Some officials fear that if Keiko Itokazu, the main antibase candidate, is elected, the Futenma relocation plan will once again be put on hold and the entire base realignment plan will be in jeopardy.

“The other school of thought says it doesn’t matter if Henoko is ever realized because the U.S. can continue to use Futenma,” the State Department official said.

That indifference comes from a growing resignation in Washington that even if Okinawa were to elect a probase governor who is in complete agreement with the Henoko plan as is — and no candidate is 100 percent behind the plan — it would still be at least eight years before U.S. aircraft would land at Henoko.

“In the meantime, there would surely be continued demonstrations against Henoko and renewed anger toward the U.S. military presence in general, which would place the security relationship between the U.S. and Japan in further trouble,” said Robert Eldridge, an associate professor at Osaka University’s School of International Public Policy. Eldridge, who has written extensively on the Okinawa base issue, opposes the Schwab plan, citing logistics and financial problems.

Eldridge thinks the Okinawa governor should be invited to the negotiating table on equal terms with central government and U.S. officials to work out a solution.

Brad Glosserman of Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, a think tank that gives policy advice on Asia to the U.S. government, said a three-way meeting is unlikely. Lower-level U.S. officials might be interested in talking to Okinawa, but people at the highest level do not want to get involved in local issues.

“America’s leaders have decided Okinawan politics are for the Japanese to worry about, not America. After having been burned in their previous dealings with (former Okinawa Gov. Masahide) Ota, who opposed the bases, the U.S. is only going to talk to Tokyo,” Glosserman said.

Sheila Smith, a fellow at East-West Center, another Honolulu-based think tank, said if there were talks, Tokyo would have to take the lead on any dialogue between Washington and Okinawa, but she added it is too late to scrap the Henoko plan.

“If the Japanese government asked the U.S. to join in a conversation with local officials in Okinawa, then the U.S. would probably do so,” Smith said. “But the U.S. government has been negotiating the realignment plan for several years, and I doubt that it would be prepared to start over again at this point.”

Security analysts on both sides of the Pacific are not just watching the Okinawa election. Most expect U.S. policy on Japan will change with the Democratic Party’s victory in this week’s U.S. midterm elections.

Their immediate reaction has been that the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan will likely become less of a priority.

“Given the full agenda waiting for the Democratic leadership in Washington, I’m not sure the Futenma base (and) realignment issue will be given much attention. It’s more likely the new congressional leadership will focus on the Korean Peninsula and will attempt to influence the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea,” East-West’s Smith said.