Saturday, November 21, 2009

US and Japan at odds over bases

US and Japan at odds over bases

Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent
From: The Australian
November 21, 2009 12:00AM

IN spite of Barack Obama's soothing manner in Japan, the argument over restructuring US military forces continues to go badly, stressing the Americans' most important relationship in the region.

The likelihood is Tokyo will be browbeaten into accepting Washington's position which, after all, is enshrined in their 2006 agreement on realigning US forces in Japan.

The risk is that relations between the two administrations will be permanently soured.

Even since Obama and Yukio Hatoyama met in Tokyo last Friday the politics has been messier. The sharp end of the dispute is whether the US marines' Futenma airbase moves from civilian-crowded Ginowan to a new facility beside the marines' Camp Schwab in Nago, to the northeast, as previously agreed.

The end-point of the realignment -- desired by the new Hatoyama government -- is shifting 8000 marines from Okinawa to Guam, a US Pacific territory.

Hatoyama wants the agreement varied so Futenma does not go to Nago. There is disagreement within his cabinet about where it should go, and the PM refuses to clarify.

Scrambling before last week's meeting to avoid a blow-up, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada agreed a high-level working group should resolve the disagreement. But straight afterwards, Obama said the working group "will focus on implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached".

That might be his understanding, Hatoyama responded, but we're interested in changing the 2006 agreement, not agreeing how to implement it.

The US Senate intervened this week, slashing the 2010 budget allocation for the Guam relocation, apparently to chide Japan for backsliding on the agreement. The White House has asked for the Guam cut to be restored and likely it will be. But when congress gets antsy about Japan issues, as the Japanese know too well, disputes tend to turn more difficult and nasty.

"It depends on how big of a thing both sides want to make of Futenma," says Koichi Nakano, an international relations expert at Tokyo's Sophia University.

"Because . . . the end outcome (relocation) is not going to be all that much different.

"In spite of the campaign rhetoric of the Democratic Party of Japan, the government has no clear alternative in mind; it doesn't even seem to have looked seriously at alternatives before the election."

The US seemed unprepared for a new government bringing a new approach to alliance management from their familiar partners of more than 50 years, the Liberal Democratic Party.

However, Obama's administration was forewarned 18 months ago by Seiji Maehara, the best-connected DPJ frontbencher in Washington, that a new government would seek a "clean slate" on Futenma.

LDP ministers dragged their feet over Futenma for a decade. When backed into a corner by the frustrated Pentagon, they signed and then resumed foot-dragging on implementation.

The Hatoyama government's election also completely changed the political dynamic of Okinawa bases.

Okinawans who wanted the burden of US military bases lifted or lightened were used to being sat upon by LDP governments and ignored by most of the other 99 per cent of Japanes.

Hatoyama as opposition leader, however, undertook "we would consider (Futenma) relocation outside of Okinawa and outside of the country".

Now the Okinawans have everyone's attention.

If Hatoyama u-turns on Futenma the domestic damage to his young government could be considerable. If he doesn't, the alliance could be upset in ways he and Obama neither want nor perhaps foresee.

"Please trust me," Hatoyama said last Friday.

"I trust you," Obama responded. Friends of the alliance in both capitals have their fingers crossed.

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