Q+A: U.S. base feud plagues alliance with Japan
Mon Jan 11, 2010 1:05am EST
TOKYO (Reuters) - A feud over plans to relocate a U.S. military base on Japan's Okinawa island as part of a broad reorganization of U.S. troops is fraying ties between Japan's four-month-old government and close ally Washington.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said ahead of the August election that swept his Democratic Party to power he favored moving the U.S. Marines' Futenma airbase off Okinawa island, and two tiny coalition partners insist he should make good on those remarks. He has pledged to decide on the matter by May.
Following are some questions and answers about the issue.
WHY CLOSE THE FUTENMA BASE AND REPLACE IT?
Residents of Okinawa, 1,600 km (1,000 miles) south of Tokyo and reluctant host to about half the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, have long resented what they see as an unfair burden in maintaining the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
The concentration of U.S. bases on Okinawa, a major U.S. military forward logistics base in the western Pacific, is a legacy of America's occupation of the island from 1945 to 1972.
Many locals associate the bases with crime, noise, pollution and accidents, and outrage flares periodically -- most strikingly after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.
As part of a 1996 pact to reduce the U.S. military presence, the United States and Japan agreed to close Futenma Air Station, home to about 4,000 Marines and located in crowded Ginowan City, within seven years if a replacement could be found in Okinawa.
An initial plan for an offshore facility in northern Okinawa was opposed by locals and environmentalists. The current plan is for relocation to a northern site in the city of Nago to be partly built within another U.S. base and on reclaimed land.
IS THIS JUST ABOUT FUTENMA?
No. The issue is much broader. Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2006 on a "road map" to transform the decades-old alliance, the pillar of Japan's post-World War Two security policies.
Part of a U.S. effort to make its military more flexible globally, the realignment fit efforts by Japan's then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to shed the constraints of its postwar pacifist constitution and assume a higher global security profile.
Central to the pact was a plan to reorganize U.S. troops in Japan, including a shift of about 8,000 Marines by 2014 to the U.S. territory of Guam from Okinawa. The Marines' move, however, depends on finding a replacement site for Futenma.
WHY HAS THIS DISPUTE FLARED UP NOW?
Hatoyama's Democratic Party, which took power in September, promised in the campaign leading up to its election victory that it would review the realignment pact as well as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing the U.S. military in Japan. Hatoyama said moving Futenma's functions off Okinawa was best.
More broadly, the Democrats have promised to adopt a diplomatic stance less subservient to Washington, a shift from the ousted long-dominant LDP.
Anxiety is exacerbated by questions about the overall future of the five-decade-old U.S.-Japan alliance as both face the challenge of China's rising economic and military might.
CAN A CRISIS BE AVOIDED?
Maybe, but the outlines of any resolution remain murky.
Washington is unlikely to agree to substantial changes to the 2006 plan. Japan might eventually agree to the current plan as is, or with slight modifications, but that could cause a rift with two tiny parties whose backing is needed to pass laws smoothly and upset Okinawa residents. It would also cause voters to wonder why Hatoyama raised the issue in the first place.
Delaying a decision until May complicates things because an anti-base candidate could win a January 24 election for the mayor of Nago, although the risk of upsetting coalition partners could decline somewhat once key bills are enacted in parliament.
Appearing to dither or endanger the alliance could undermine Hatoyama's public support ahead of the election, which the Democrats need to win to reduce dependence on the two tiny parties and avoid creating a deadlock that would stymie policies.
Few analysts expect the dispute to spill over into trade and investment ties between the world's two biggest economies but damage to U.S.-Japan alliance could spell geopolitical uncertainty in a region home to a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea, eventually affecting investment flows.