U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed hope June 25 that all pending issues concerning U.S. military bases in Okinawa, including the issue of the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, will be resolved before he attends a Group of Eight summit there in July 2000. “I don’t want to go over there and have all these things hanging out,” Clinton told a White House news conference. The Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture are now under pressure to expedite settlement of the issues, including the planned relocation of the Futenma facility.
In 1996, the Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa agreed that the Futenma facility and other U.S. military bases should be returned to Japanese control, but the Futenma issue remains unresolved. If it is not resolved, the Japan-U.S. security alliance could be endangered. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi told the Diet that he did not think Clinton was setting a deadline for solving the base issues in his remarks last month. Instead, Obuchi said, Clinton was merely expressing hope for an early settlement of the issues.
Clinton and Obuchi agreed, however, during talks June 18 in Cologne, Germany — where they attended a G8 summit — to promote bilateral consultations on ways of breaking the deadlock on the Futenma issue. On June 9, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley told Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine that there should be no further delay in implementing the SACO accord. These developments show that Japan and the United States seek to use the Okinawa summit as leverage for solving the base issues.
In an interview published in The Japan Times July 1, Foley declined to link the Futenma issue to the Okinawa summit, but expressed the hope of seeing “some progress by the end of this year” on the matter.
The issue of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa came to a boil in September 1995, when three U.S. servicemen were charged with raping a local grade-school girl, stirring strong resentment among Okinawans. In April 1996, Japan and the U.S. signed a joint summit-level declaration on security, reaffirming plans for the consolidation and reduction of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. U.S. military installations in Okinawa account for 75 percent of all such bases in Japan, occupying 10 percent of the land space of the entire prefecture and 18 percent of that of the main Okinawa island.
SACO called for the reversion of 11 U.S. military installations to Japanese control on condition that they be relocated. Of them, only the Aha training area in northern Okinawa has been returned. Moves are afoot to relocate five other facilities, including the Naha harbor, but the relocation of the remaining five facilities, including Futenma, is still pending because of opposition in local communities.
The government proposed in November 1997 to build a sea-based heliport off the northern Okinawa city of Nago, the site of the 2000 summit, in place of the Futenma facility. In a plebiscite, however, the majority of Nago residents opposed the proposal. In February 1998, then Gov. Masahide Ota expressed opposition to the government proposal, causing a deadlock on the plan. In November 1998, Inamine won the gubernatorial election, defeating Ota on a campaign pledge to build an airport in northern Okinawa for joint use by U.S. military aircraft and commercial airliners for up to 15 years. Inamine is now in a difficult position, facing intense central government pressure to make progress on the relocation issue and strong opposition from the communities involved. Inamine told the prefectural assembly on July 5 that he was considering possible relocation sites, but did not identify them.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, the key government official in charge of Okinawan affairs, told Inamine in a meeting on Okinawan policy June 29 that steady progress should be made in implementing the SACO accord.
Okinawa is now a major U.S. strategic foothold in the Asia-Pacific region, where some 100,000 U.S. troops are involved in forward deployment. In 1991-92, U.S. forces withdrew from Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines in the face of growing nationalist protests. This has increased Okinawa’s importance to U.S. forces, which defend a wide region in Asia, from Northeast Asia to the Indian Ocean. It was against this background that SACO agreed to retain important military functions and capabilities in Okinawa.
Clinton threw the ball back at Japan with his recent comments on the base issues, including the Futenma question, which remains unresolved despite the Japan-U.S. summit agreement and the SACO accord. Government leaders obviously wish to take advantage of the scheduled summit in Okinawa to make a breakthrough on the deadlocked base issues. Okinawans insist that the summit and the base issues should not be linked.
But the question is: Who wants the status quo? If opposition by local communities impedes the relocation of a U.S. military facility and leads to the nullification of the summit agreement, a trust-based security alliance would be unworkable.
Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has caused a stir by seeking partial use of U.S. Yokota Air Force Base in Tokyo for commercial airline flights. Not only Japan, but also the U.S., benefits from the Japan-U.S. security alliance. U.S. bases in Japan, including Okinawa, are crucial to U.S. military strategies to deter provocations by China, India, Pakistan and Middle East nations such as Iraq. Japan spends about $5 billion a year, as a host-nation support, to help defray the cost of the U.S. military presence, the largest amount spent by a U.S. ally. It should have more say on U.S. military strength in Japan, locations of bases and the size of its aid to the U.S. Base issues often stir nationalist protests, as the Philippine example shows. To solve these knotty issues, the government should do some hard strategic thinking.
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