With both Japan and the United States unlikely to soon seek new solutions to the stalled relocation of the Futenma air station in Okinawa, progress might be better achieved through discussions by nongovernmental experts, according to a U.S. analyst.
The existing plan to transfer the Futenma base from a crowded residential district in Ginowan to the less-populated coastal area of Henoko within Okinawa is “becoming politically infeasible” amid continued opposition from the local community, said George Washington University professor Mike Mochizuki.
“To push it stubbornly will lead to negative consequences for the U.S.-Japan alliance,” added Mochizuki, who has been studying the issue since 1995.
However, under the current circumstances, neither the Japanese government nor U.S. officials are likely to come up with an alternative option to the agreement reached in 2006. This is where nongovernmental experts should come into the picture, he said.
“I think that Japanese leaders understand how difficult it is, but they cannot abandon this proposal because they saw what happened to Prime Minister (Yukio) Hatoyama when he tried to change it,” Mochizuki said. “Japan on its own initiative officially cannot come up with a (new) plan.”
He was referring to the former prime minister who was forced to step down after failing to uphold a pledge to move the base outside Okinawa, having not only angered the local community but also seriously denting U.S.-Japan relations.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. side, the working-level officials assigned to the “very difficult negotiations” in 2006 are “very committed” to the agreed upon proposal.
“They feel that they’ve looked at everything else and this was the only one that, as they will say, was the least bad of everything else. So they are not going to change the plan,” he explained.
As a solution, Mochizuki suggested that nongovernmental experts from both sides conduct a “zero-based analysis” to consider the most efficient way of distributing U.S. forces in Japan, especially the Marine Corps, and see if there is an alternative.
Within the community of specialists on U.S.-Japan relations, there is a “diversity of views” of the bilateral ties, he said.
He also urged the Japanese government to be persistent in “nemawashi” (consensus building) with Washington so that the top U.S. leadership will ultimately address the issue.
According to Mochizuki’s own proposal, the United States should reduce the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), headquarters and some logistic units, and then send the rest of the combat forces back to the main U.S. territory.
This would likely also require a repositioning of marine aircraft to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and subsequently to move some of the air force aircraft to Guam or to Misawa Air Force Base in Aomori Prefecture, so that the total number of takeoffs and landings, as well as the noise level in Kadena would be reduced as previously promised by the United States, he said.
Mochizuki also suggested using a Self-Defense Forces facility as “cobase” for stationing some of the marine aircraft, as well as conducting joint exercises such as on the main islands of Japan or in Northern Mariana.
“But to do all this will require a lot of political skill and the Japanese government has to be able to step up to the plate to do this,” said Mochizuki, who is a board member of the nongovernmental organization New Diplomacy Initiative soon to be established in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, he disagreed with criticism that pulling the marines out of Okinawa would weaken the alliance’s deterrence and send the wrong signal to China or North Korea.
“The MEU is a force of 2,000 but it’s a very rapid kind of deployment force (and) we have the infrastructure to bring in marines, so it’s not like we’re departing,” he argued.
In addition, eliminating this very difficult issue, which has been bothering the alliance for decades, would make it “stronger” and “more healthy,” and thus should send a positive signal, he said.
Relocating some of the marines from Okinawa back to the U.S. homeland would also likely be welcomed by base-hosting communities in the United States in the face of an inevitable decrease in the number of marines in uniform after the winding down of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, given the U.S. budget crisis, Mochizuki added.
The U.S.-Japan relations expert said, however, that he no longer supported the idea of a transfer to Guam, as it had become clear that creating the necessary infrastructure for the marines on Guam would be “very expensive.”
Asked about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes of lifting Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense, Mochizuki said he is in favor of the Japanese government changing the existing “misguided” interpretation of the Constitution.
“Every country, as a member of the United Nations, has the right of individual and collective self-defense, so it’s no big deal,” he said. The Japanese government takes the stance that while it has the right under international law, it cannot exercise the right because of the nation’s pacifist Constitution.
Rejecting critics’ claims that embracing the right to collective self-defense would mean Japan could no longer refuse to participate in military operations when requested by the United States, Mochizuki said, “Japan can say ‘no’ and still be an ally.”
“Just because you reinterpret it doesn’t mean then that any time the United States asks for help Japan is obligated to provide that help,” he said.
Using the U.S.-led war in Iraq as an example, Mochizuki said, “Germany said ‘no,’ and the German-U.S. alliance relationship survived.”
As for the escalating tensions between Japan and China sparked by a rekindled territorial dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, Mochizuki said he is “very worried” due to the absence of “a good exit strategy out of these tensions.”
“I think it’s really important to have open and honest discussions between China and Japan to try to work out a way of de-escalation,” he said.
He also advised that it would be wrong and “dangerous” for the Abe government, which has used tough rhetoric with regard to the Senkakus during the election campaign, to think that being tough and nationalistic on this issue is the way to consolidate power for the Liberal Democratic Party ahead of the upcoming House of Councilors election.