The Impasse over U.S. Bases on Okinawa
By Nicholas Szechenyi
Jan 26, 2010
Q1: How did this impasse come about?
A1: In 2006, the United States and Japan reached an agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, including the relocation of U.S. forces on the island of Okinawa. The latter involved a package to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and thereby reduce the burden of the U.S. troop presence on Okinawa residents. The package included a plan to close the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, located in an urban area in central Okinawa, and build a replacement facility in a less populated area on the northern end of the island near the town of Nago. In February 2009, the United States and Japan signed an agreement formally authorizing the Guam transfer and the construction of a replacement facility for Futenma. But Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had pledged to reexamine the agreement during an election campaign last summer and felt obligated to put the realignment process on hold after taking office last fall. The Obama administration has stated its desire to implement the agreement as soon as possible but resigned itself to the new government’s review of the issue.
Q2: What is behind the decision of the Japanese government to review the agreement?
A2: Last August, Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) engineered a landslide victory in elections for the Lower House of Japan’s Diet (parliament) and formed a coalition government with two smaller parties whose support he needs to pass a budget in the current legislative session and deliver votes in Upper House elections this summer. One of the coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), opposes the relocation plan for Futenma and insists the base be moved outside Japan. Last month the SDP threatened to quit the ruling coalition if the government did not support its position, a testament to the complicated domestic political calculations surrounding this issue. On a broader level, the decision to review the agreement arguably stems from a desire by the DPJ to distance itself from the policies of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which until last summer had ruled nearly uninterrupted since 1955.
Q3: Where do things stand now?
A3: The Hatoyama government floated various alternatives to the current relocation plan for Futenma before announcing in December that a decision would be postponed until May of this year, after consultations with coalition partners. On January 24 the residents of Nago, a small town of approximately 60,000, elected a mayor who opposes the current agreement and vows to prevent the new facility from being built there. Prime Minister Hatoyama has repeatedly stressed the need to hear the concerns of Okinawa residents, and the outcome of the Nago mayoral election could therefore factor into his decisionmaking. A panel established by the central government continues to study the Futenma issue.
Q4: How about Japanese public opinion?
A4: A poll published by the Yomiuri newspaper on January 11 found 44 percent of the public in favor of the existing relocation plan for Futenma, with 30 percent suggesting it be moved out of the country and 13 percent wanting it moved out of Okinawa prefecture. A December 21 Mainichi newspaper survey revealed 51 percent of the public disapproved of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s announcement to delay a decision on the Okinawa base issue.
Q5: How engaged are the U.S. and Japanese governments?
A5: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Hawaii on January 12 and reiterated the conviction that the existing agreement is the best way forward but that the United States respects the process undertaken by the Hatoyama government. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell will lead a delegation to Japan in early February to continue consultations on this issue.
Q6: Could this have an impact on U.S.-Japan relations?
A6: January 19 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, in which the United States committed to defend Japan in exchange for U.S. access to bases for the maintenance of peace and security in the Far East. The security alliance is a core pillar of the bilateral relationship, and it is important that the Futenma issue be resolved so that the two governments can move forward. Until the Hatoyama government finally decides how it wants to proceed, observers are left wondering whether the current impasse is merely a product of complicated domestic politics in Japan or a preview of fundamental disagreements that could introduce a period of uncertainty in U.S.-Japan relations.
Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.