Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Futenma flap

Japanese Leader Under Fire Over Okinawa Base

AOL News, May 19

Taipei, Taiwan -- Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has tried to please everyone on the thorny issue of moving an unpopular U.S. Marines air station. But so far he's pleased no one, and on Friday he faces what could be an uncomfortable discussion of the matter in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In his electoral campaign last year, Hatoyama raised hopes that the Futenma Marine base might be moved completely off the island of Okinawa, where residents have long complained that they bear a disproportionate burden in noise, safety concerns and environmental impact from U.S. troops and aircraft.

But once in power, he quickly came up against pressure from the U.S. to honor a 2006 deal that would relocate the Marines to another site on the island, which hosts more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

Hatoyama's fumbling of the affair has strained U.S.-Japan ties and taken attention away from his government's ambitious domestic agenda of sweeping reforms. Now there's even talk that Futenma could be his political coffin nail.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the government has been mortally wounded by the dispute over Futenma, not because of the government's position per se but because of its inability to take a position," Japan politics expert Tobias Harris wrote in a recent commentary.

"Arguably it is due to his mishandling of Futenma above any other issue that has led Hatoyama to be branded as a poor leader, for good reason," Harris wrote.

Some 17,000 Okinawans protested on Sunday, ringing the Futenma air station and demanding that Hatoyama make good on his campaign promise to give the Marines the heave-ho from the base, which lies in a heavily populated area. But officials and residents in other sites eyed as possible alternative hosts for U.S. Marines have loudly cried, Not in my backyard.

Hatoyama's own coalition partners have slammed him, saying he should step down if he can't find a solution by his self-imposed end of May deadline.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials and the foreign policy establishment have wrung their hands in frustration. Lately the tone has turned icy, with President Barack Obama famously giving Hatoyama only a few minutes of "face time" at a working dinner of world leaders in April, even as he held extensive talks with the heads of much smaller countries.

Perhaps the most fed up are the Japanese people themselves. They voted for Hatoyama's party last August hoping for change, only to see Hatoyama fumble with Futenma and other issues. The latest polls showed his approval rating has fallen to between 19 and 23 percent, down from 77 percent when he was inaugurated last September.

Hatoyama's next chance to come up with a workable plan is Friday, when he's reportedly due to meet with Clinton.

But the latest murmurings from Tokyo aren't encouraging. Kyodo News reported that the U.S. had rejected Hatoyama's latest proposal, which reportedly would have tweaked the 2006 deal by shifting some Marines and training facilities off Okinawa to sites elsewhere in Japan.

Yet some say the controversy isn't entirely Hatomaya's fault, arguing that Washington has pushed the new Japanese government too hard just as it's trying to get its footing after the country's first real political power shift since World War II.

Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor of political science at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, noted that the previous government had also failed to win approval from Okinawans for a Futenma relocation plan. He said Hatoyama's cabinet members had offered "too many opinions" on Futenma, while Hatoyama himself has been consistent, at least in recent months.

"He said the Okinawan people should be burdened with one base, and the rest of the air bases should be outside Okinawa," said Hashimoto. "I believe he has not changed this perspective and this view."

Hashimoto said the government was likely to miss the end-of-May deadline and put off a decision until the fall, at the latest. "I think it will take longer," said Hashimoto. "The May deadline is not so important."

But others emphasize that Japanese bases are critical to overall U.S. strategy in East Asia and to fulfilling obligations in Article VI of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. They're exasperated that Hatoyama doesn't seem to see that bigger picture and is refusing to honor the 2006 deal.

At a recent forum in Washington, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage criticized Hatoyama, saying, "Not having a Plan B in mind when you announce that you don't want to take Plan A is a little irresponsible, in my view."

He called the Futenma controversy "an entirely self-inflicted wound by our Japanese allies" and said that Hatoyama's government was "apparently not accepting the Futenma relocation plan simply because it happened to be the plan of the previous government."

Armitage said the flap had essentially put U.S.-Japan relations on hold for eight months.

Still, he and other observers are urging policymakers in Washington and Tokyo to move past the controversy as soon as possible and patch up the relationship.

"At some point, we cannot let base issues, as fundamental as they are, continue sucking the oxygen and energy out of the much broader and critically important agenda we have with Japan," said Michael Green, former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, speaking at the same forum.

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