Reconsidering the Reconsideration of Futenma

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The Futenma US Marine Airbase is inconveniently situated in the center of Ginowan City in southern Okinawa. The location is awful, a relic of Japan’s imperial military infrastructure that has military aircraft constantly landing and taking off in a dense urban environment, and the locals want it gone. In the mid-1990s the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the US started to hammer out a relocation plan, and fifteen years later, they finally agreed to move the base to an offshore facility in northern Okinawa.

futenmaJapan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wants to uphold an election pledge to “move away from U.S. dependency to a more equal alliance” — which means reconsidering the Futenma relocation. Hatayama wants to act boldly on this matter, and has decided that instead the base should be moved to… um… somewhere else. Well, maybe — he hasn’t decided yet. Hatoyama’s inability to envision an alternative plan, or even how to approach an alternative plan, combined with the DPJ’s replacement of bureaucrats with elected politicians in the public policy debate, has given the more ambitious members of the cabinet the opportunity to engage in public policy freestyling. Transportation Minister Maehara wants to scrap the plan and go back to square one, Defense Minister Kitazawa wants to keep the plan as it is, and Foreign Minister Okada wants to relocate the base -elsewhere in Japan- -to Guam- elsewhere inside Okinawa. The DPJ vision changes almost daily, and US officials, long numb to Japan’s tedious foot-dragging, are now getting pissed — most noticeably US Defense Secretary Gates, who visited Japan last month and called the reconsideration of the plan “immensely complicated and counterproductive.” But what else should we have expected from these guys? As I warned earlier this year, the DPJ are amateurs suffering cognitive dissonance when it comes to foreign policy, and the longer this abstract debate drags out, US officials will only become more frustrated. And this threatens the stability of the US-Japan relationship.

Most of the “Japan hands” in the blogosphere sympathize with the DPJ. Tobias Harris of Observing Japan says the US needs to wake up to the reality of this new alliance. Michael Cucek at Shisaku has a comprehensive and pessimistic analysis of Obama’s upcoming visit to Tokyo in the broader context of US-Japan relations, which concisely dissects the unique challenge that now face this critical bilateral relationship. To abridge Michael’s key section:

In international law there is the concept of “odious debt” — of national debts incurred by an oppressive regime that a successor regime has the right to refuse to pay. Given the decades the LDP clung to power, many in the present coalition government consider a whole host of Japan’s obligations to be “odious” that they should review and possibly repudiate.

The agreement to transfer Marine Corps elements from the Futenma Airbase to Henoko is the ultimate expression of an odious obligation. It was an LDP solution to an LDP problem: keep American bases off the main islands (even though the amphibious ready unit, the ships the Marines are supposed to ride on, are homeported in Sasebo [in Nagasaki] and the Marine fighter jets in housed at Iwakuni [in Yamaguchi]); keep the Okinawans down and quiet; and keep visiting Americans alternately enchanted and frustrated by disingenuous reports of progress toward the goal, which somehow had to along the way destroy vital dugong habitat. As the Prime Minister and others in the DPJ point out, not even 12 years of LDP governments could bring the Futenma transfer to fruition. That he and his party should be condemned for not imposing an arrangement they oppose on a population that does not want it baffles them. That the United States government continues to insist that they do so exasperates them.

Readers won’t be surprised that I find myself defending the LDP decisions and take issue with the description above, a position that matches that of most of Okinawa’s elected leaders. Let’s look at some key arguments for the Futenma relocation plan:

* The residents of Nago, where the base is to be relocated, support the plan. Mayor Shimabukuro recently came out to agree with Gates, saying the US Defense Secretary is right for being frustrated with the central government’s indecision. Shimabukuro was elected on a platform built on the status quo set by his predecessor, which emphasizes economic growth over everything else, and he won more votes than both of his anti-base opponents combined.

* It’s not just Nago — all twelve mayors of northern Okinawa have publicly accepted the new relocation plan. The DPJ’s waffling has been so unsettling to the locals that the mayor of Kadena is teaming up with the US forces to oppose relocating the relocation to Kadena, promoted by some members of the Hatoyama cabinet as the best alternative, and where one US facility complex already exists.

* Okinawa Governor Nakaima accepts that US bases must stay in Okinawa. Nakaima has a particular knack for balancing the concerns about US bases with the need for the economic benefits that come with it, and has become relatively popular in Okinawa by refusing to side with either faction and instead saves his ire for the national government — all while saying that, in an ideal world, he would prefer bases be relocated outside Okinawa. He criticized the Defense Minsitry under the LDP for “lacking delicacy,” and most recently, didn’t mince words regarding the DPJ’s scattershot public debate on the topic, saying “Okinawa is not the central government’s rock garden.”

* The biggest opponent of the relocation is Mayor Iha of Ginowan, and Ginowan is the center of all the protests — yet this is the municipality that would benefit from the relocation. It really doesn’t make sense — if the mayor and the residents don’t want the base in the city, why are they opposed to moving (most of it) out of the city? As it happens, Mayor Iha is the only elected mayor in Okinawa who vocally wants US forces not just out of Okinawa, but all of Japan. Of course he’s welcome to that opinion, but this is a view far removed from the mainstream public debate in Japan, making him unusual person to be quoted and referenced, unless the Hatoyama administration wants US forces out of Japan altogether (which it doesn’t).

* Construction on the project has already commenced. To a certain extent this follows a similar point I made when reviewing the Yamba Dam. Some dismiss it as the “sunk cost fallacy.” But I disagree, and the DPJ Defense Minsiter Kitazawa has spoken on this point in expressing doubts on changing the relocation plan.

Those are the practical and domestic political reasons for wanting the relocation. But beyond this, let’s review the relocation from the perspective of Japan’s national interest.

For more than half a century, the LDP management of the Japan-US relationship was, frankly, brilliant. Japan recieved dirt cheap defense services by letting the US base on Japan’s soil, yet managed to keep most American servicemen out of major urban areas (unlike Korea, where US bases are inside Seoul’s urban boundaries). Having defense outsourced to America and situated within the American economic sphere, Japan was able to concentrate on economic development and quickly grew to be the world’s second largest economy.

What has Japan done for the United States and the world in exchange for this discounted security? It makes minimum, token contributions to global security, bankrolls a few international development projects, and keeps proactive and material contributions at the bare minimum — or as Shisaku described Futenma, Japan kept “visiting Americans alternately enchanted and frustrated by disingenuous reports of progress.” That sentiment could be applied to much of Washington’s attitudes towards Japan when it comes to becoming more involved in world affairs.

Yet Washington has long tolerated Japan’s indifference to the world because under the LDP, it regularly granted the US unconditional support. Whether it be at the UN, or in supporting the US on tough foreign policy decisions, or in keeping bases available, Japan has long been a solid ally. That means a lot more than you might think. US bases have been kicked out of France, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, and elsewhere, and suffered various woes with regard to fierce public opposition in places such as South Korea and much of Europe. Save for the student protests of the 1960s, Japan has been remarkably reliable — if just in spirit. Or to quote a recent article in the Washington Post, “A senior State Department official said the United States had ‘grown comfortable’ thinking about Japan as a constant in U.S. relations in Asia.”

The DPJ is doing more than trying to break the Futenma deal — it’s breaking the unspoken understanding behind the entire alliance. By pushing for a more “equal” Japan-US relationship (whatever that means), and frustrating the Pentagon on its key issues (such as Futenma), the DPJ risks alienating it’s allies in Washington. And therein lies the danger for Japan’s national interest. America has been calling on Japan to “pull its weight” in contributing to global security for years, and we may be approaching the last straw. The Futenma controversy is compounded by the DPJ pushing to cancel it’s only proactive involvement in the war on terror by ending the refueling mission for US ships in the Indian Ocean.

But Hatoyama has got to accept the fact that neither he nor the Japanese people want an equal relationship with the United States — at least not if they actually saw what it would look like. Japan does not want to have to pay for US bases by sending Japanese SDF forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not want to be diplomatically fending for themselves while repeating complaints about the North Korean abductions and Russia arresting its fisherman. They do not want to push themselves out of the US defensive perimeter, or even in the away direction from the US defensive perimeter. Of course, this may ultimately be good for US national interest, because this is a better time than any to demand Japan to step up to the plate and take a lead in the world. But Japan doesn’t really want that, yet that is where we are going if Hatoyama pursues the “equal alliance” mantra and continues to piss off the US just because it feels good.

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