Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America

U.S. Base Reversal Draws Public Ire on Okinawa

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, May 24 2010 (IPS) - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced on Monday that he would renege on his campaign promise to renegotiate the move of a controversial U.S. airbase off the island of Okinawa.

Hatoyama’s announcement was greeted with outrage on Okinawa, as residents met his arrival on the island on Sunday with angry protests and signs denouncing the decision to go through with the rebasing plan which he had promised to renegotiate.

Prior to taking office in September 2009, Hatoyama’s election platform included a call for reexamining Japan’s ties with the U.S. with a particular focus on the 50,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan.

After taking office, Hatoyama was faced with the difficult task of negotiating a mutually agreeable basing arrangement with Washington while maintaining the support of a constituency who threw their backing behind his promises to renegotiate the relocation of the Marine base.

“I want to commend Prime Minister Hatoyama for making the difficult, but nevertheless correct, decision to relocate the Futenma facility inside Okinawa. We are working with the Japanese government to ensure that our agreement adopts Japanese proposals that will lighten the impact on the people of Okinawa,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Beijing on Monday.

“We are confident that the relocation plan that Japan and the United States are working to conclude will help establish the basis for future alliance cooperation,” she continued.

The disagreement over where or how to move the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma to a less populated area had become a major point of disagreement between the Barack Obama White House and Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government.

With Monday’s announcement, Hatoyama brought a steady stream of criticism from members of his own governing coalition and an angry reception in Okinawa as residents heard reports that Hatoyama was likely to concede on the rebasing negotiations.

“[The announcement is] pretty distressing. It seems as though [Hatoyama’s] own personal feelings about the matter, reflected by the campaign pledge and after being elected, have given way to pressure from both within Japan and outside of Japan,” John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS.

“He clearly felt the need to come to a decision by the end of the month with elections coming up. The Okinawans represent almost one-percent of the Japanese population. Political calculations would suggest that they’re dispensable,” Feffer said.

The negotiations over Futenma had become the sticking point in relations with the Obama administration as Hatoyama sought to form a “more equal” relationship with the U.S. while the White House pushed Hatoyama to honour the rebasing agreement from 2006.

The plan will move the existing helicopter base from the centre of Ginowan city in the south to the Henoko area in the north.

Okinawa residents have raised concerns over the environmental impact of the rebasing and the size of the U.S. military’s footprint on the island.

The U.S. military presence on Okinawa holds a strategic interest for Washington since the island’s southern location offers the U.S. military easy access to the Taiwan Strait.

Recent security concerns in northeast Asia after the sinking of the Cheonan – a South Korean warship which appears to have been sunk by a North Korean torpedo – have put new pressures on the Hatoyama government to reaffirm the Japan-U.S. alliance.

“I decided that it is of utmost importance that we place the Japan-U.S. relationship on a solid relationship of mutual trust, considering the current situation in the Korean peninsula and in Asia,” Hatoyama told reporters on Monday.

Hatoyama was quick to point to the sinking of the Cheonan as a reason for patching up relations with Washington but some experts have argued that that the relatively small size of the base at Futenma – it hosts 4,000 Marines out of the nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel based on Okinawa – should make the rebasing negotiation a less important component of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“I would say [concerns over stability on the Korean peninsula] are real in the sense that the Japanese government and the U.S. government believe that the Cheonan incident suggests that the neighbourhood of northeast Asia is dangerous and require military vigilance,” said Feffer.

“The perception is real, however, I think it’s unconnected to Futenma in that such a small number of Marines aren’t going to do much in a war between North and South Korea,” Feffer continued.

Hatoyama’s political future in Japan remains uncertain after his decision to concede the basing issue – one of, if not the most important, component of his foreign policy platform during last year’s election.

With Upper House elections scheduled for Jul. 11, some observers have speculated that Hatoyama may have no choice but to step down if the DPJ performs poorly on election day.

Hatoyama’s political career may be in question but local politicians on Okinawa have vowed to prevent the construction of the new base.

“My guess is that we may see a different sort of alignment of forces after the Japanese election so this issue is far from settled. It took 15 years for [U.S. and Japanese officials] to plan the closure of Futenma. I don’t think we’re going to see base construction any time soon,” said Feffer.

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