WASHINGTON – The replacement of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa is “now the responsibility of the government of Japan” under the terms of a long-stalled agreement, according to former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Stating his position in a recent interview, Armitage also acknowledged that alternative solutions such as moving the Futenma operations to the U.S. mainland or Hawaii “could happen.”
Meanwhile, on heightened tensions between Japan and China, Armitage said that although he believes the possibility of conflict is low, the risk of an accident is higher and both sides need to maintain “excellent communications” between not only top leaders but also their respective ground-level commanders over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known by the Chinese as Diaoyu, to keep hostilities from erupting.
Armitage, who together with former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye released the third Armitage-Nye report on the U.S.-Japan alliance last August, expressed frustration over how the issue of replacing Futenma with a new airstrip in Henoko, also in Okinawa, dominates bilateral relations. He described Futenma as a “smaller issue” when compared with the “big issues” that matter to all Japanese and many Americans, such as overall relations, and Japan’s place in the world.
“As far as I understand, when Mr. (Shinzo) Abe came here, he told Mr. (Barack) Obama that he would do his best, that Henoko still remained the best plan,” Armitage said, referring to Prime Minister Abe’s summit with the U.S. president in Washington in February. “So as far as I’m concerned, it’s now the responsibility of the Japanese government.
“I want to concentrate on big issues — China, Taiwan, North Korea,” Armitage added. “And, most importantly, by the way, in my view, the rejuvenation of Japan.”
Japan and the United States agreed in 2006 to close the Futenma base in the densely populated city of Ginowan after its replacement is operational on the Henoko coast of Nago, by 2014. But in 2011 they withdrew the deadline as the replacement plan remained stalled, largely due to opposition from local residents demanding that Futenma not be replaced with a facility in Okinawa.
Armitage also voiced his opposition when asked about calls for a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the handling of U.S. military personnel in Japan, in light of repeated offenses involving members of the U.S. armed forces. He indicated that operational improvements will be adequate.
“I’m opposed to ever opening the Status of Forces Agreement, because they would have to be passed by the U.S. Senate and nothing but mischief could happen,” he said.
“We’ve turned over much more rapidly to Japanese authorities people who have caused trouble, even recently having two sailors who were convicted of a rape,” Armitage said. “So I think we have found ways, without renegotiating the SOFA, to make it more appealing to Japan and more transparent to Japan. So that’s the direction I want to go in.”
He also noted that for a long time after the end of World War II, the U.S. presence in Okinawa was welcomed. But after the islands’ reversion to Japan in 1972, “both because Okinawa got more crowded and because there were tensions between the (Japanese) central government and Okinawa, the American expression is, to some extent we became the ‘meat’ in a sandwich,” Armitage said of the difficulties faced by the United States over its military presence in Okinawa.
Armitage acknowledged there had been frustration among U.S. policymakers over Japan’s domestic political chaos, which has seen six prime ministers in as many years. Now, with Abe’s return to office finally providing hope of an administration having some stability, “most in the United States feel quite good about that,” he said.
On Abe’s push for revising the pacifist Constitution, Armitage reiterated that it will be for Japan itself to decide whether to change the supreme law or whether to amend the government’s interpretation of it, but that in his view, “the Article 9 prohibition is an impediment to (U.S.-Japan) alliance cooperation.”
The government currently interprets the war-renouncing Article 9 as prohibiting Japan from exercising the right to collective self-defense.
Armitage, who described Abe as a “friend for a long time,” is also supportive of the prime minister on the issue of restarting the use of nuclear energy in Japan, despite the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that started in 2011.
“My belief is Japan’s nuclear reactors are the safest in the world,” he said while acknowledging the antinuclear feelings here. “Who in the whole world could think of a 9-scale earthquake and 33-foot-high (10-meter) wall of water? That’s the reason Fukushima became a disaster, not because the reactor design was unsafe.
“It is impossible for me to see how Japan can recover, unless Japan uses nuclear energy,” Armitage added. “I think (this) is the only way for Japan to rediscover their manufacturing prowess and to come out of the ‘lost decade,’ if you will, almost two decades.”
With regard to critics in Japan who complain that the government blindly follows policies presented in the Armitage-Nye report, the former deputy secretary of state said, “(I) would welcome anyone in Japan standing up and having their own report, and I would welcome what advice they had for the United States, in their report.
“There are plenty in the United States who are critical of Dr. Nye and me. They say that we’re pushing Japan in a way that Japan doesn’t want to go,” he added. “My answer is simple: Then have Japan stand up and say that.”
As for his view of his own role in U.S.-Japan relations, Armitage said, “Though I have many Japanese friends, I do not do what I do because I love Japan; I do it because I love the United States. I know what’s in my country’s interest.”