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Japan, U.S. can’t manage to shake Futenma headache

But threat of China will keep bilateral security ties relevant

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

High-level security talks between Japan and the United States held Tuesday in Washington canceled the 2014 deadline to move the contentious Futenma air base in Okinawa and highlighted the main issue that is likely to continue complicating the bilateral relationship.

While the Futenma matter has hit another impasse, analysts say the alliance between Japan and the U.S. will remain strong in the face of regional security challenges, including China’s increasing military presence in the area and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their counterparts, Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, emerged from meetings in Washington with a statement saying the Futenma relocation will be completed at the “earliest possible date” after 2014.

The statement also asks China to take a “responsible and constructive role” in the stability of the region, and asks for its “cooperation on global issues.”

“The lack of progress on base issues has been exasperating for the U.S. The Kan government has shown itself to be inept,” said Paul Scott, a political science professor at Kansai Gaidai University, referring to the Democratic Party of Japan administration under Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

But Scott also said that while China at present does not have the capability to project its sea power worldwide, “it is venturing into the blue water in ways not seen since the commercial voyages of the Ming Dynasty.”

Negotiations over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the densely populated city of Ginowan to a less populated area within the prefecture have stalled due to strong local opposition.

While the relocation is one step in the Pacific realignment of U.S. forces that would shift 8,000 U.S. Marines and their dependents, who would possibly number around 9,000, to Guam, the U.S. territory will first need to build infrastructure to accept the troops moving from Okinawa.

The plan, however, has also met resistance from U.S. lawmakers concerned with its high cost — the Senate Armed Services Committee recently passed a bill banning spending for the move to Guam until a thorough review was undertaken.

Gates said the move was a “manifestation of growing congressional impatience with the lack of progress,” and said he “emphasized the importance of concrete progress over the course of the next year.”

In Washington, Sen. Jim Webb, who chairs the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a leading opponent of the current agreement, said a more realistic alternative was needed and that Congress should withhold funding until other options are explored.

“The decisions announced today (at the two-plus-two meeting) with respect to basing realignments were predictable,” Webb said. “However, the reality of extensive delay in completing the Futenma Replacement Facility as it is now proposed underscores the importance of resolving U.S. basing realignments in a more realistic manner.

“The concerns regarding costs and feasibility raised by the Armed Services Committee should be fully addressed before Congress funds the proposed realignments,” he said.

Scott, an expert on U.S.-Japan-China relations, said administrations under the DPJ have strained Japan’s ties with the U.S.

During his short-lived stint, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama alarmed Washington when it appeared he was wooing China with his proposal for a so-called East Asian community.

“Self-inflicted damage by both sides demonstrated an extraordinary lack of nuance,” Scott said. “My guess is that Washington is secretly hoping for a DPJ defeat and the return of the old Liberal Democrtic Party.”

But Hatoyama was eventually forced to resign, in part after criticism over his inability to follow through on his campaign promise of removing Futenma from Okinawa, and Kan is a lame duck after declaring he will resign amid criticism of his handling of the March 11 disasters and ensuing nuclear crisis.

And now, with the government concentrating most of its attention on reconstruction efforts amid heated political infighting — and new movements from within the U.S. calling for a review of the relocation — Futenma seems to be on the back burner, with the two nation’s main concern being how to deal with China’s rise and Pyongyang’s threat.

“China has flexed its muscles in the maritime regions surrounding Japan in ways that are not productive,” Scott said, adding that it was in America’s best interest to maintain its military presence in the region.

“Okinawa and Japan are not just Asia-based issues but overlap and interact with the (Persian Gulf) and the Middle East, as well as sea lanes of command, communication and control,” he said.

And while the two nations urged China to take a more responsible role in regional stability and transparency in its military modernization, Scott said Japan boasts a dismal foreign policy record, citing last year’s run-in between a Chinese fishing boat and Japan Coast Guard vessels trying to shoo it away from the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands.

Gist of bilateral security statement

Washington

KYODO

Following are highlights of the joint statement issued Tuesday after security talks between the Japanese and U.S. defense and foreign ministers.

On common strategic objectives, Japan and the United States:

• Urge China to play a responsible and constructive role in regional stability and to adhere to international norms of behavior.

• Agree to deter North Korea’s provocations and seek the verifiable denuclearization of the North, including its uranium enrichment program.

• Strengthen trilateral security and defense cooperation with Australia and South Korea.

• Maintain safety and security of the maritime domain by defending the principle of freedom of navigation.

• Promote the highest level of safety of civil nuclear programs, and enhance the capability to address nuclear incidents.

On the relocation of the Futenma air base, Japan and the United States:

• Agree to build two runways in a V formation in a coastal area of Okinawa Prefecture.

• Drop the earlier agreed deadline of 2014 for completing the relocation, while vowing to finish the project at the earliest possible date after 2014.

“Japan’s response to these collisions was weak in the extreme. . . . Japan certainly does not have the skill or will to engage in a proactive independent foreign policy in Asia,” he said, criticizing the Foreign Ministry for failing to project a clear Japanese vision for the region.

Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said that as the U.S.-Japan alliance heads into 2012, the political change in Northeast Asia — with China’s increasing military clout and the North Korean nuclear threat — “will require us to remember the fluid regional context within which Japan must recover” in the wake of the March 11 disasters.

“Our relationship can also have a tremendous impact on the success or failure of Asia’s effort to build strong and predictable frameworks for security, especially maritime security,” she said.

The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that ravaged the country’s northeast has burdened the nation with an estimated ¥25 trillion in damages — the most expensive natural disaster in history.

Smith said she believed the U.S.-Japan bilateral agenda expanded in the wake of the March 11 disasters, and said the two nations should work closely on the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, and do everything — both at the government and nongovernment level — to help Japan recover.

The U.S. military mounted a massive relief campaign in the wake of the March 11 earthquake called Operation Tomodachi, which was received with open arms in Japan.

“Despite the political standoff in Nagata-cho, Japan’s businesses and local communities, NGOs and households have shown tremendous energy and determination to overcome the difficulties. Governance at the national level must keep pace, and the U.S. can help where capacities are most needed,” she said.