Okinawa base strains diplomacy
Posted on: Sunday, November 22, 2009
By Richard Halloran
A churning dispute between Japan and the U.S. over the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan has revealed not only political and diplomatic differences between the governments of President Obama and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, but a cultural chasm in the way Americans and Japanese view agreements.
The realignment, agreed to in May 2007, calls on the U.S. to move a Marine air station on Okinawa from a congested city to a less crowded place; to transfer 17,000 Marines and family members from Okinawa to U.S. territory on Guam; and to consolidate other U.S. bases on the island and thus return land to Okinawans. The intent was to reduce friction between U.S. forces and Okinawans.
The agreement was signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Fumio Kyuma, who was minister of defense at the time, and Taro Aso, who was minister of foreign affairs. In diplomatic practice, international pacts agreed to by one administration are generally considered to be binding on successor administrations.
In this case, the Hatoyama government, which came to office in September, has said in effect that it wants to reopen the negotiations. After meeting with Obama in Tokyo earlier this month, Hatoyama said he will consider relocating the air station outside of Okinawa and perhaps outside of Japan. "We'll make every effort," he said, "to resolve the issue as quickly as possible."
In contrast, Obama said a working group "will focus on implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached." He added: "We hope to complete this work expeditiously." Earlier this fall, Gates was blunt during a visit to Tokyo, saying that if one element of the realignment is to be renegotiated, the rest of the agreement would be nullified.
The composition of the working group underscores the disparity in approach by Hatoyama and Obama. Representing Japan are two cabinet officers, Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa and Minister of Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada. On the U.S. side are two sub-cabinet officials, the ambassador to Japan, John Roos, and an assistant secretary of defense for Asia, Wallace "Chip" Gregson.
Compounding the task of the working group is the Hatoyama government's inexperience and disarray, with the prime minister, the defense minister and the foreign minister each taking a different public position on what a renegotiated agreement should look like. Hatoyama wants the air station out of Japan, Okada wants it consolidated with another U.S. base on Okinawa, and Kitazawa wants the agreement left alone.
Diplomatic differences bear indirectly on this issue. Hatoyama has said Japan should depend less on the U.S. and seek stronger ties to its East Asian neighbors. Obama said he visited Japan on his recent Asian trip to seek "an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan."
The cultural chasm is a consequence of conflicting views on what constitutes an agreement. In the U.S., negotiators tend to seek firm concurrence on as many possibilities and contingencies they can think of. Americans negotiate toward detailed pacts that leave little room for interpretation. As the saying goes, Americans want all the t's crossed and the i's dotted.
In contrast, Japanese believe that negotiators cannot anticipate every eventuality and therefore seek flexibility in contracts. In most cases, it is permissible in Japan for one party to an agreement to ask subsequently that it be modified because the conditions under which it was made no longer obtain.
In this case, the Hatoyama government has essentially argued that the conditions under which the base agreement was made no longer obtain and therefore the agreement should be reconsidered. The Obama government clearly disagrees.
It looks like the Japanese and Americans need a bridge to get across this chasm.
Richard Halloran, formerly a New York Times correspondent in Asia and Washington, is a writer in Honolulu.