Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met with the U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time Wednesday in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. While the two leaders agreed to deepen the alliance between Japan and the United States, Mr. Obama urged Mr. Noda to make serious efforts to ensure progress in the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the densely populated Ginowan city in Okinawa Island to the coastal Henoko area on the same island.
Mr. Obama told Mr. Noda that a period in which results must be seen in the relocation plan is approaching. He was reiterating in stronger terms what the U.S. had said during a bilateral meeting in June of foreign and defense ministers of both countries. At that time, the U.S. had told Japan that it is important to make concrete progress on the Futenma issue within a year.
Mr. Obama apparently is feeling impatient and irritated over the relocation issue, because some U.S. congressional leaders, including Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, have criticized the U.S. rebasing plan, which would involve a new Marine Corps air station in Okinawa and transfer of some 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. They think that the plan is too costly and unrealistic.
Replying to Mr. Obama’s request, Mr. Noda said that he will do his best to get the understanding of Okinawa’s people so that the Futenma functions will be relocated to Henoko in accordance with the Japan-U.S. agreement. But one wonders how he could make headway in view of Okinawan people’s strong opposition.
Mr. Noda made a promise extremely hard to keep. The more he tries to impose the Henoko plan on Okinawa, the more resistance Okinawan people will put up and the schism between them and the government will deepen.
On the other hand, if he cannot solve the issue, it will greatly disappoint the Obama administration.
In view of China’s military buildup and its moves to increase its naval presence in the sea near Japan, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the unstable situation in the Korean Peninsula and Russia’s moves to strengthen its effective rule in the disputed islands off Hokkaido, it is beneficial for both Japan and the U.S. to strengthen cooperative relations.
But leaders of both countries should consider whether it is wise to be preoccupied with implementing the plan to relocate the Futenma functions to Henoko in the face of strong opposition from Okinawan people. Such preoccupation will only harm the Japan-U.S. relations.
The government has decided to give new grants with no strings attached to Okinawa to accelerate regional development over 10 years from fiscal 2010. Clearly the government hopes that the grants will help soften Okinawan people’s opposition to the Henoko plan. But Mr. Noda should realize that a carrot-and-stick approach designed to get concessions from Okinawan people over U.S. military base questions does not work any more.
If they sense a carrot-and-stick element in the grants plan, they will harden their attitude, thinking that the central government has a discriminatory attitude toward Okinawa and its people. Mr. Noda should consider Okinawan people’s sentiment by extending his imagination back to the incorporation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into Japan, the suffering of Okinawan people in the Battle of Okinawa of 1945 and the postwar U.S. occupation of Okinawa.
He also should pay close attention to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s remark during his recent visit to Washington that the Futenma issue will be resolved much more quickly if a relocation site is chosen in other parts of Japan outside Okinawa.
The mayor of the Nago city, where Henoko is located, is against the Henoko plan and opponents of it form a majority in the Nago assembly. In February 2010, the Okinawa prefectural assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling for moving the Futenma functions outside Okinawa Prefecture.
To implement the Henoko plan, permission to reclaim land from the sea must be obtained. The governor has the power to give permission for reclamation.
Mr. Nakaima also said in Washington that if a new air station is constructed in Henoko, it would mean building a military base “by means of bayonets and bulldozers.” This means that the level of resistance put up by Okinawan people would be so strong that authorities would expect to have to rely on physical force.
U.S. Sens. Levin, Jim Webb and John McCain have proposed integrating the Futenma air station with U.S. Kadena Air Force Base, also on Okinawa Island. This proposal represents a realistic move to break the current deadlock, although it probably will not be accepted by Okinawan people.
Mr. Noda should ask the U.S. to rethink the Henoko plan and propose joint efforts to work out a completely new plan acceptable to Okinawa.
On the economic front, he told Mr. Obama that he will reach a conclusion at an early date on whether Japan will join talks for the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). There is no guarantee that the TPP will help Japan. The partnership is primarily an American strategy to double U.S. exports. It is not an invitation from the U.S. to Japan to increase Japanese exports to the U.S. The TPP would expose Japan’s agriculture, the financial and insurance sectors and service industry to strong U.S. economic offensives.
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