The Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling coalition said Tuesday it will put off resolving the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma until next year, effectively prolonging an issue that has raised tension between Tokyo and Washington as well as within the ruling coalition.
The decision, which Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called “the government’s position,” puts forward that the DPJ, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) will maintain their trilateral discussions and continue seeking an appropriate relocation site for the base.
The government will set up a new committee to study the issue but will also allocate funds in the fiscal 2010 budget for the Futenma relocation without a finalized site.
According to government sources, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano proposed during a tripartite meeting in the morning that a decision on Futenma be made by May. Usually the budget clears Diet deliberations by that month after submission in January.
But SDP chief Mizuho Fukushima insisted that the government avoid setting a specific deadline, the sources said, adding that Hirano eventually backed down.
“The three parties confirmed plans to cooperate in handling the issue,” Hirano told reporters after the agreement was reached at a ministerial committee meeting.
He avoided providing any details, saying the government is in negotiations with the United States.
Later in the day, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada informed U.S. Ambassador John Roos of the government’s decision.
Asked if the development effectively nullifies past accords with the U.S., Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that “is a possibility.”
Japan and the U.S. agreed in 2006 to relocate the Futenma airfield to Henoko near Nago in the northern part of Okinawa Island by 2014. But the pacifist SDP, which formed a coalition with the DPJ in September, has pressured the government to get tougher and rethink the deal.
Tuesday’s decision by the three parties leaves a thorn in the government’s side but for the time being stabilizes the foundation of the coalition. Heading into January’s ordinary Diet session without a majority in the Upper House, the DPJ must preserve its ties with the SDP and Kokumin Shinto to pass crucial bills, including the 2010 budget.
SDP President Fukushima indicated to party executives earlier this month that her party would part ways with the coalition if the base is built at Henoko as agreed.
On Tuesday, Fukushima told reporters she was glad talks on the relocation were extended without a time limit.
“The issue is deeply related to the peace in Japan and the people of Okinawa. Building a base on the coast of Henoko also works against the (local) environment,” she said, denying reports that she opposed laying down a time frame despite the DPJ being eager to resolve the issue by May.
“I did not make such request. That is a false report,” Fukushima said, but she added it would have been unnecessary for Japan to set a deadline to resolve the matter.
Washington has remained unyielding on the 2006 accord, pressuring Hatoyama to make a quick decision and carry out plans already worked out. U.S. officials have called the 2006 accord “the only feasible measure,” while expectations were high after Hatoyama asked President Barack Obama to “trust” him on the issue during their summit in Tokyo last month.
Tuesday’s move is likely to irk the U.S. further.
“When the government’s position is decided, we will obviously work hard to realize it during our negotiations with the U.S.,” Hatoyama said Tuesday.