The unresolved issue of where to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is threatening to further strain Japan-U.S. ties as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama puts off making a decision, critics said Wednesday.
Hatoyama and his government have been caught between its coalition partner Social Democratic Party, which is demanding that Futenma be relocated outside Okinawa, and the U.S., which is pressing Japan to abide by a 2006 agreement to move Futenma’s heliport functions to Nago in northern Okinawa by 2014.
On Wednesday, the prime minister told reporters that he intends to come up with a new proposal soon for discussions with Washington but admitted it may not necessarily resolve the relocation issue.
Meanwhile, Watanabe said President Barack Obama is coping with bigger problems, such as gaining support for his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and that he wouldn’t be able to negotiate on Futenma with Hatoyama.
“Realistically, there is no room for negotiations,” Watanabe said. “Obama can’t afford to negotiate — he won’t be able to make concessions.”
Also Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said the scheduling of the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan could be affected if the relocation of Futenma is not resolved soon.
The relocation to the Henoko area in Nago is part of the 2006 road map for the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan that includes transferring 8,000 marines and 9,000 family members from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.
“If the Futenma issue takes a little more time (to resolve) and if the next action plan cannot be carried out because of it, then it’s possible that the timeline of the realignment program could be more or less altered,” Hirano said.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has expressed “a sense of crisis” over bilateral ties, revealing Tuesday that a high-level working group on the sensitive issue has been suspended.
“In my experience as a politician, I have a sense of crisis that if we don’t firmly deal with the Futenma issue, the Japan and the U.S. could lose their relationship of trust,” Okada said.
Before Obama made his first official visit to Tokyo last month, the two governments agreed to set up a minister-level working group on Futenma, which critics said was just a way for Japan to buy time and put off making hard decisions. But on Tuesday, Okada said certain problems have surfaced that exceed the framework of the working group.
“We have suspended the working group for the time being and we are waiting to see whether or not the discussions should go back to the working group,” Okada said.
Okada also hinted that meetings to prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. security treaty next month have been postponed.
Obama and Hatoyama agreed last month during their summit in Tokyo to set up the meetings.
Although Okada denied media reports that the U.S. informed Japan of its intention to postpone the meetings, the foreign minister admitted that the Futenma relocation issue needed to be resolved first.
“I don’t recall (the U.S. side saying they intended to postpone the meetings) but I myself am aware that we are not in that position,” Okada said. “Without resolving the Futenma issue, I am just not in the mood to talk about the 50th anniversary of the security treaty or how the Japan-U.S. alliance should be.”