HONG KONG — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama chose to use his 10 minutes with President Obama at a working dinner during the recent nuclear summit trying in vain to bend the president’s ear on the increasingly vexing question of the relocation of U.S. military base facilities in Japan. He did this rather than use the time to bring Japan’s moral advantage to bear on nuclear security, which was supposedly why he was in Washington. Several months into office and with plummeting popularity, it is time for Hatoyama to question his own political priorities.
While the prime minister was away, Japan’s defense forces got their own view of a side issue of the argument about U.S. bases — a display of strength by 10 Chinese warships passing between Okinawa and Miyakojima. China’s exercise was perfectly legal since the vessels were in international waters, but it was a clear message about Beijing’s increasing military muscle.
Hatoyama came to power with the declared but undefined aim of reasserting Japan’s authority in the relationship with the United States, in which Tokyo has been a very junior partner, protected by the American nuclear umbrella but paying for it by way of $2 billion a year and the presence of 47,000 U.S. troops — plus the occasional but considerable hazards of military machines that crash and soldiers who misbehave.
Ironically, the only thing on which everyone is agreed is that it is time for the Americans to close the Marine Corps’ busy Futenma air station on Okinawa Island. A modern urban area has sprung up around the base and any major accident there could incite strong anti-American sentiment. The deal made in 2006, which took Tokyo and Washington 15 years to negotiate, was to close Futenma, send 8,000 of the marines to Guam and the rest to a new facility located elsewhere on Okinawa Island. Japan is to pay more than 60 percent of the $10 billion relocation costs.
The Hatoyama government is neither radical nor anti-U.S.; nor is the man himself. But they seem determined to prove the old proverb that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. They started “negotiations” with neither a vision of the destination nor a road map to get there. I put the word “negotiations” in quotation marks because Washington has hardly been involved yet in serious discussions, except to repeat that while it thinks the 2006 agreement is the best plan, it is prepared to listen to suggestions.
Hatoyama has been ditherer-in-chief in internal discussions on the Japanese side. Rather than asserting himself as a leader with a plan or an orchestrator of smooth and sensible discussions, he has allowed a dangerous profusion of voices to sway the arguments, some with little concern for political, military or practical reality.
Inside the government the smaller parties have sought to dictate terms. The leader of one minor party, who has a tiny following, would like U.S. troops out of Okinawa and Japan altogether. Government members have spent time and money exploring Okinawa, Guam and other stretches of the Pacific to see where they could send the U.S. troops. They got no takers, with Guam pointedly saying that it could not accommodate more than the 8,000 marines it has agreed to take once the Futenma closure is complete.
Outside the government, Hatoyama has given voice to a chorus of NIMBY — not in my backyard — demands. The government encouraged this by backing one candidate for mayor of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, the small city intended to be host for the relocated Futenma. The candidate stood — and won — on the platform of saying “No” to the Americans. His success, and Hatoyama’s acceptance that his victory would make it difficult to build the new base in Nago, has simply encouraged other districts inside and outside Okinawa to assert that they will see the removed base anywhere except in their backyard.
The governor of Okinawa recently repeated his demands that the U.S. troops should be relocated outside Okinawa and is planning a rally of 100,000 Okinawans to make this clear. Plenty of people sympathize with Okinawa, which hosts more than 50 percent of American troops in Japan and has long memories of the savagery of World War II. About 200,000 Okinawan civilians were killed, many of them forced to commit suicide by the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan and Okinawa bases are ideally located in terms of short flying and sailing time from potential flashpoints, such as Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.
Some exasperated Americans are saying that maybe it is time for the U.S. to leave Japan to its own devices, grumbling that the treaty between the U.S. and Japan commits America to coming to Japan’s aid but not vice versa. They join leftist Americans and Japanese who say that the era of colonial military rule should be over.
But this is a non-starter, not least because of the signal to North Korea, and indeed to China, of Americans being kicked out or retiring hurt from a major potential nuclear theater. At the very least Japan would have to fill the vacuum of the departing Americans with troops of its own — which would spark fears in Asia of revamped Japanese militarism. It would be a brave Japanese leader who could resist going nuclear if the Americans depart. The other factor is whether financially hard-pressed Japan could afford its own troop buildup.
Having noted all this, Hatoyama could have chosen the more constructive approach of asking the U.S. to consider consolidating and improving existing bases, with emphasis on those outside Okinawa; questioning how many troops America really needs in Japan, especially given that some of the bases are staging-posts for deployment in Afghanistan and elsewhere; and asking if the demand for a new marine facility was really necessary, or whether it stems from rivalry between the Marines and other U.S. troops.
This would not have excited the headlines. But it could have yielded fruitful discussions in light of President Obama’s own thoughts on the nuclear challenge.
If Japan wants to play a useful international role, it should be working on its unique moral advantage as atomic victim and raising questions to Obama and China about the use and abuse of military power. It would give the Hatoyama government a chance of becoming a substantial international partner. Instead, some of his own senior party members are speculating that if Hatoyama fails to strike a deal on Futenma, he could soon be joining Japan’s long procession of ex-prime ministers.
What a waste of an election victory that would be, when Japan has pressing economic problems waiting for a solution. And what a waste of Japan’s unique moral advantage.
Kevin Rafferty is author of “Inside Japan’s Powerhouses,” a study of Japan Inc. and internationalization.