Futenma shift puts Hatoyama, U.S. ties to test

by Mari Yamaguchi

The Associated Press

The next prime minister faces a possible showdown with Washington over a plan to relocate a U.S. air base in Okinawa and in the process move thousands of U.S. Marines from the prefecture to Guam, as he tries to remake his country’s relationship with the U.S. while maintaining their strong alliance.

Yukio Hatoyama, riding a landslide victory by his Democratic Party of Japan in Sunday’s Lower House election, is expected to be formally voted in as prime minister Sept. 16, ending more than a half-century of almost uninterrupted rule by the staunchly pro-Washington Liberal Democratic Party.

Although Hatoyama is facing a mountain of economic problems, including Japan’s worst unemployment rate since World War II, attention is also keenly focused on his ability to fulfill promises that he will remake Tokyo’s relationship with Washington. Hatoyama has said he wants Japan’s relationship with the U.S. — a key trade partner and the Asian power’s strongest ally — to be more equal.

The transfer of marines from Okinawa to Guam could be the first test of that effort, analysts said Tuesday.

Under a deal negotiated with the U.S., Tokyo agreed to foot part of the bill to move 8,000 marines, and their dependents, from Okinawa to a new base in Guam by 2014, easing overcrowding a prefecture that hosts more than half of the 50,000 U.S. service members stationed in the country. About 10,000 marines will remain.

But the accord is murky on a number of points, and one of Hatoyama’s first dealings with Washington will be to iron it out.

Key to the accord is the long-delayed relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a another location on Okinawa Island. The new base is supposed to be operational by 2014, at which time the marine contingent would be moved to Guam.

Washington has already tried to head off any attempts by the new government to re-negotiate the terms of the agreement.

“The United States has no intention to renegotiate the Futenma replacement facility plan or Guam relocation with the government of Japan,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday.

The challenge comes amid concerns over Hatoyama’s inexperience in foreign affairs and worries that his desire for more balanced relations with Washington and deeper ties with Asian neighbors could open a rift between the old allies.

Those have largely been fueled by an Op-Ed published in The New York Times ahead of Sunday’s election, in which he suggested Japan had suffered under U.S.-led globalization.

He appeared to try and distance himself somewhat from the controversy, however, saying in comments broadcast Tuesday on Japanese television that what he wrote “was in no way an expression of anti-U.S. views.”

But the DPJ has raised concerns with several components of the accords with the U.S.

Some members, for instance, have questioned Japan’s contribution to the cost of moving the marines. It has pledged more than $6 billion. The party is also resisting U.S. plans to build Futenma’s replacement air base elsewhere on Okinawa — a component Washington says is integral to the deal, which the two nations formally agreed upon in 2006, when the LDP was in power.

In August, some 200 people gathered to oppose the use of Futenma at the campus of Okinawa International University, where a helicopter crashed five years ago, damaging a school building and triggering calls for shutting the base. They want the base out of the prefecture altogether, not simply relocated to a less congested area.

Hatoyama’s party, too, says the base should be moved someplace else in Japan — although no other sites have been suggested. Failure to find a suitable replacement would delay the marines’ move and damage the new government’s relationship with the U.S.

“Japan-U.S. alliance and security issues will be a crucial test for the Democrats,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy at the Tokyo Foundation, a private think tank.

“If the Okinawa issues don’t go smoothly, it could affect the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

Security relations with the United States are good, but Okinawans have long bristled at the difficulties of hosting so many service members, including crimes committed by U.S. personnel and congestion caused by the existence of the bases that take up a large swath of the main island, and analysts said tensions over the marines’ presence could flare up.

“Basically, the DPJ will try to buy as much time as possible, but they can’t avoid the issue,” said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa. “The good news is that President Barack Obama may be willing to take a fresh look at the problems.”

Japanese officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the schedule has not been finalized, said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to visit Tokyo by November to discuss the military alliance.

Another thorn in the relationship could arise if Tokyo decides not to renew the Maritime Self-Defense Force refueling mission in the Indian Ocean that provides support for U.S.-led coalition forces fighting terrorism in and around Afghanistan. The DPJ has said it wants to end the mission when it next comes up for renewal in January.

“The Democrats’ security and diplomatic stance is pretty much a blank sheet, but they will have to come up with a convincing policy as soon as possible,” the Tokyo Foundation’s Watanabe said. “It’s a difficult task, like delivering a baby.”