Political analysts in Japan and the U.S. agree that the heated battle between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa for control of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan could have a huge impact on the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air base.

Experts in Tokyo and Okinawa say that if Kan is re-elected, the Futenma base will go as planned to Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa. But if Ozawa wins and becomes prime minister, all bets are off the table regarding what direction he would take, they say.

Meanwhile, Japan hands in the U.S. believe that Kan would be more welcome in Washington than Ozawa and have praised his acceptance of the May 28 accord to relocate Futenma to Henoko. But they also believe that whoever is prime minister, he needs to be more forceful with the U.S. about the future of not only Futenma but the bilateral relationship as a whole.

So far, Kan has expressed his intention to follow through with establishing the relocation site in Henoko. Ozawa, on the other hand, has been unclear, saying he believes a solution can be found that would be acceptable to both the U.S. and Okinawa, even as he admits that he has no specific solution in mind.

“Okinawans see an Ozawa victory as at least creating the possibility of having the relocation site moved out of Okinawa, as opposed to the re-election of Kan, who will most likely go along with the current plan,” said Manabu Sato, a professor at Okinawa International University.

Sato said that after a year of being disappointed by the DPJ, Okinawans see little to be hopeful about in the DPJ presidential election. Yukio Hatoyama originally promised that as prime minister he would move the Futenma base outside of Okinawa but failed to do so and the base plan ended up where it all began — putting Futenma in Henoko.

“People are losing their trust in democracy, especially in Okinawa,” Sato said. “Okinawans have expressed their will (against military bases), but no one is listening. Their distrust in politics and the government is growing.”

Japan’s relationship with the U.S. has been strained ever since Hatoyama tried and failed to move Futenma out of Okinawa. Some critics express concern that Japan is becoming more vulnerable as other countries watch tensions between the two countries mushroom over the issue.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank and an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, says ties are at a crucial moment given China’s increased military spending and tension on the Korean Peninsula.

“This is not the time to be weakening bilateral ties over the base issue,” Watanabe said. “Trust between Japan and the U.S. is more necessary than ever.”

Recent public opinion polls show Ozawa is less popular than Kan among voters. But he is arguably even more disliked among some Washington-based Japan analysts and government officials. Both groups fear his vision of the bilateral military alliance is for a reduced role by U.S. forces and a foreign policy much less in lockstep with Washington.

U.S. military and State Department officials are said to be in general agreement that, while Kan may not be No. 1 on their list of Japanese politicians most likely to improve ties, he is far preferable to Ozawa.

So sensitive is Washington about the DPJ election and Ozawa that senior State and Pentagon officials have declared a moratorium on comments by U.S. officials, either on or off the record, about Ozawa, his statements, positions or prospects for his election.

Asked Tuesday about Ozawa’s desire to restart the Futenma talks, Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman, sidestepped the question.

“I think there is an ongoing political process within Japan. Let’s see how that process unfolds first,” he said.

But since Kan became prime minister in June, independent commercial U.S.-Japan analysts who wield influence behind the scenes over official U.S. policy toward Japan believe that if the choice is between Kan and Ozawa, Washington prefers the former.

Writing in the July issue of Comparative Connections, a quarterly journal on East Asian relations, Michael Green, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a National Security Council director for Asian affairs under President George W. Bush, and Nicholas Szenchenyi, also at CSIS, praised Kan’s handling of the May 28 agreement, which called for Futenma to be relocated within Okinawa.

That agreement came despite the verbal promise by Hatoyama, strongly backed by Ozawa, to get the base out of the prefecture.

“During his first address to the Diet (in June), Kan took a subtle jab at Hatoyama by stating that his approach to diplomacy would be guided by realism and not ideology. Kan also set a positive tone for the U.S.-Japan relationship by repeatedly referring to the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy. This rhetorical shift signaled a fresh start for Tokyo and Washington,” Green and Szenchenyi wrote.

Asked about Kan’s reputation in Washington, Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said in early June that those who follow Japan saw a politician who fought the bureaucracy on behalf of HIV patients in the 1990s evolve into a expert on complex financial issues.

“Kan is known (in Washington) for his role at the health and welfare ministry, when he was outing bureaucrats for protecting pharmaceutical companies and not protecting HIV patients. He is a fighter,” Smith said right after Kan became prime minister. “But his recent role inside the Finance Ministry, his articulation of Japan’s policy agenda, both the short and longer-term task of fiscal reform, has been very impressive to watch.”

As for the DPJ presidential election, Smith said that with Ozawa it’s not clear to many in Washington what would happen to Japanese politics if he wins. Or if he loses.

“If he wins, nobody knows what an Ozawa government would look like. But whoever wins, the larger question is, do you have a divided DPJ that can even survive?” she asked.

Tobias Harris of the political blog Observing Japan says that, to the extent personal relations between leaders matters, Kan is preferable to Ozawa, although he added that the Futenma issue is so complex that it is unlikely a solution to the opposition in Okinawa will be forthcoming anytime soon, regardless of who is in power.

“However, on the personal level, when it comes to meetings between the U.S. president and Japanese prime minister, Kan would be easier for the U.S. to deal with,” he wrote, the implication being that Kan is more willing to bend to U.S. desires than Ozawa.

Ironically, many of the same sentiments now expressed about Kan are similar to what was said in the early 1990s about Ozawa.

In 1990 and early 1991, the U.S. was building international support for the first Persian Gulf War, and pressure was on Japan to contribute troops to the international coalition that would fight Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Ozawa, then secretary general of the ruling LDP, supported sending troops if there was a United Nations mandate and found himself more welcomed in Washington, where he was feted by Japan hands in and out of government, than in Tokyo, where he was opposed by many members of his own party.

Ultimately, Japan sent no troops to Kuwait but provided $9 billion in financial assistance after Kuwait was liberated in early 1991.

In 1993, Ozawa’s book, “Blueprint for a New Japan,” called on Japan to be a “normal” nation by participating in overseas military operations sanctioned by the United Nations. His position earned him American praise as a principled, decisive leader. But by the end of the decade, his star had fallen as his political power appeared to wane.

His opposition to sending troops to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and his position on relocating Futenma outside Okinawa angered the U.S., making the man who was once a Washington insider an outsider.

Whether Kan or Ozawa wins the DPJ presidency, analysts agree that what the next prime minister must do to improve ties is set out clearly what, exactly, Japan’s future vision of the alliance with the U.S. will become.

For 14 years the Futenma relocation issue has remained unresolved while Japanese politicians in both the ruling and opposition parties have been too vague about where, exactly, they see the military alliance and the larger bilateral relationship in the 21st century, and what role they want for Japan in both.

“Futenma is like a bone stuck in the throat of the alliance, and what’s really needed from Japan at this point is forthrightness about the alliance and where it should be going,” Harris said.

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