Report: Japan suspends talks on future of U.S. base on Okinawa
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 8, 2009 7:15 AM
SEOUL -- A rift between the United States and Japan over the future of a military air station on Okinawa widened Tuesday, as Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told Japanese media that talks on relocating the base have been suspended.
The report offers additional evidence that the newly elected government of Japan is uncomfortable with the military footprint of the United States. Most of the 36,000 U.S. forces in Japan are based on the southern island of Okinawa.
Japan may ask the United States to mitigate the military's impact on the daily life of Okinawans before reaching a conclusion on what to do about the disputed air station, chief cabinet secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Tuesday.
"The biggest priority for the Japanese side is to reduce burdens on the people of Okinawa,'' he said at a news conference.
Asked if the U.S. government could comment on the reported suspension of U.S.-Japan talks about the air base, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Tokyo said, "No."
During his visit to Tokyo last month, President Obama and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama set up a "high-level working group" to resolve the dispute about the location of the Futenma Marine air station, which is located in a densely populated part of Okinawa and has become a symbol of the noise, pollution and crime that many Japanese associate with the U.S. military presence.
But the group's meetings were inconclusive and have been suspended, with no resumption set, Okada said at a press conference, according to the Kyodo news agency.
"We are now waiting to see whether we should hold the discussions again," said Okada, who is a member of the working group, as is U.S. Ambassador John Roos.
After the group's last meeting, on Friday, U.S. officials had said that they expected there would be more negotiating sessions.
Japan and the United States agreed in 2006, as part of a $26 billion plan to move U.S. troops off and around Okinawa, that the Futenma air station would be moved to a new site on the island.
But Hatoyama, who was elected in August on a promise that he would be more assertive than previous Japanese leaders in dealing with the United States, has said he wants the air station moved off Okinawa altogether -- possibly out of the country.
In recent weeks, mixed signals from his government about the future of the air station have frustrated the Obama administration. Obama said that the working group the two created would merely "implement" the existing agreement from 2006, but Hatoyama later said that unless the working group had the power to renegotiate the agreement, its meetings were pointless.
Since then, a number of the prime minister's statements on the base issue have been confusing or contradictory. He said last week that the issue need not be decided soon, then he said perhaps the air station should move to Guam and then he said the issue should be decided soon.
His statement to reporters Tuesday -- "We've come fairly close to a saturation point,'' he said -- was especially vague, and Japanese officials continued to act in ways that could be seen as contradictory.
First, the government approved the allocation of funds to pay for commitments Japan made in its 2006 agreement with the United States over moving American bases and troops, including the relocation of the Marine air field on Okinawa and the transfer of 8,000 Marines from the island to Guam.
But later Hirano, the senior spokesman for Hatoyama, suggested that United States will have to reduce base-hosting burdens on the island before Japan can agree to sort out the air-station issue.
Japanese officials said that Hatoyama may try to meet with Obama next week at the Copenhagen climate conference to discuss the base issue.
Hatoyama is facing a possible revolt by a coalition partner whose votes he needs to pass legislation in the upper house of parliament. The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Mizuho Fukushima, said last week her party might quit the coalition if Hatoyama honors the deal to keep the air station on Okinawa.
The new prime minister is also troubled by declining popularity and an economy at risk of a double-dip recession. To avoid a return to recession, his government on Tuesday agreed to spend $81 billion in new stimulus efforts.
Hatoyama's approval ratings dipped below 60 percent in a newspaper poll released Monday, as many of those polled criticized the prime minister for indecision on the base issue.