What a mess.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has opened a Pandora’s box over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Not only has Hatoyama lost the trust of the U.S. government, but he also must face the ire of tens of thousands of Okinawans disappointed over his failure to keep his promise to move the base outside the prefecture.
Critics contend it is now almost impossible to find a solution by the end of May that would satisfy both the Okinawan people and Washington. They also say the current unstable situation is endangering Japan’s security.
Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, said current Japan-U.S. relations are “at their worst.”
“As long as the Hatoyama administration exists, I don’t think (relations with the U.S.) will move forward,” Nishikawa said. “The longer Hatoyama stays in power, the more hollow the Japan-U.S. security alliance will become and China will increase its intimidation activities.”
Nishikawa said that recent military maneuvers by China indicate that Beijing believes the U.S. is pulling back from its defense of Japan. Last month, Chinese submarines and destroyers were spotted heading southeast between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island, and, separately, a Chinese helicopter flew within 90 meters of the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Suzunami.
“Japan’s security is at risk and that is why China has taken such action — it is not a coincidence,” Nishikawa said. “Japan only focuses on bilateral ties, but the Americans’ Okinawa policy is not just about Japan and the U.S. but multilateral relations including the U.S. and China.”
Even as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty, the Hatoyama government is tripping over itself on the relocation issue instead of discussing a wide range of bilateral and global security issues.
The prime minister has frozen a 2006 Tokyo-Washington agreement, made under the previous ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to move the Futenma base from densely populated Ginowan to Nago in the northern part of Okinawa.
“The way out is for either Hatoyama to step down or wrap things up with a solution close to the original LDP plan and resolve the issue as soon as possible,” Nishikawa said. “And then Japan and the U.S. should immediately begin engaging in strategic discussions over the SDF and the defense of the southeast islands and have the U.S. give its pledge of commitment. With that, I think that China’s actions will calm down.”
Earlier this week, Hatoyama visited Okinawa for the first time since becoming prime minister. There, he was greeted with harsh criticism over his “betrayal” for failing to move Futenma completely out of the prefecture.
“Most of the people I talked with asked that Futenma be relocated at least outside Okinawa,” Hatoyama said Tuesday. “But from the viewpoint of our nation’s peace based on the Japan-U.S. alliance, I had to ask the people to share part of the burden.”
During the Lower House election campaign last summer, Hatoyama promised Okinawans that his Democratic Party of Japan would move the Futenma base outside the prefecture or even out of the country.
Now, Hatoyama is said to be considering building a pile-supported platform off the coast of Nago instead of the original plan to fill in a large area of the sea to reduce the environmental impact.
To lessen the military burden on Okinawa, the prime minister is reportedly considering asking the U.S. to move some of the marines stationed in Okinawa to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Fumiaki Kubo, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo, said the DPJ proposal is unlikely to get the stamp of approval from both the U.S. and the people of Okinawa and Tokunoshima. The original 2006 accord, he points out, took a long time to hammer out and was itself a fragile agreement.
“The 2006 accord was made based on a complex equation of the Japanese government, Okinawa Prefecture and the U.S., which had no choice but to agreed to it,” Kubo said. “It was a fragile agreement and the DPJ broke it. . . . I don’t think it is something that can easily be recovered and Hatoyama and his government bear a lot of responsibility.”
So why did he do it? To critics’ disbelief, Hatoyama admitted in Okinawa that he came to realize the necessity of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa as a deterrent.
“I had thought that the existence of the marines in Okinawa was not always necessary as a deterrent,” Hatoyama said. “But the more I studied the issue, the more I began to realize that deterrence is maintained through the cooperation of the marines as a part of all of the U.S. military forces in Okinawa.”
Kubo said he was surprised that a national leader would admit such ignorance.
“Hatoyama bears the ultimate responsibility for Japan’s security and I was surprised at his lack of understanding,” Kubo said.
Now, only a few weeks from the end of May, the deadline Hatoyama imposed on himself last year is looming and still no agreement has been reached even within the ruling coalition.
“I don’t think it’s possible for Hatoyama to get what he had been aiming for — the agreements of both the U.S. and Okinawa,” Kubo said. “I guess the people around him will do something to (paper over the situation) and push back resolving the issue” past May.
But the DPJ is in trouble.
The Upper House election, the first national race since the DPJ took power, is slated for July. Meanwhile, support for the party has plunged amid political money scandals involving Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, as well as the prime minister’s lack of leadership on various issues, including Futenma.
Pundits surmise Hatoyama will carry on as prime minister even if the May deadline is missed, though it will surely have a negative impact on his party’s chances in the upcoming election.
“It is hard to say what the outcome of the election will be, especially since the LDP’s support rate is not increasing,” Kubo said. “But the people’s trust in the Hatoyama Cabinet and the people’s support in Hatoyama as the national leader is sure to dive and be entirely lost.”