The DPJ has pushed on Futenma — and the Obama administration, in the guise of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has pushed back.
Gates, visiting Japan on a tour through Asia, delivered an unambiguous message to the Hatoyama government that the US government is not interested in renegotiating the bilateral agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan. As he
said in a joint press conference with Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa:
Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa.
Our view is this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on.
We are — feel strongly that this is a complex agreement, negotiated over a period of many years. It is interlocking — (inaudible) – immensely complicated and counterproductive. We have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe that they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable.
I emphasized the paragraph above because I think it's probably the most honest statement of the US position at this point. The administration has enough problems on its hands that it has little interest in renegotiating what it sees as a done deal — signed by foreign ministers and everything — after years of hard work. I can understand the US position: Futenma has been a source of unpleasantness for a long enough time that the US government just wants the issue off the agenda.
But, on the other hand, the concerns of the new government and the people of Okinawa cannot be tossed aside simply because the US government is impatient. It is too convenient for the US government to say that it signed an agreement with the LDP and therefore the DPJ should just accept the agreement and move on — as if the transition from the LDP to the DPJ was a routine matter. I continue to find it perplexing that US officials expect that the DPJ would take power and attempt to change everything but the alliance, which was, after all, an integral piece of the 1955 system. The US may not view the alliance that way, but to pretend that the US was not a pillar propping up the LDP system for years, to pretend that the US-Japan alliance is an alliance like any other, is to be willfully insensitive to history. As much as Gates and the Obama administration would like to turn the page, their Japanese counterparts — the first government in a half-century based on a parliamentary majority for a party other than the LDP — cannot simply accept what it views as the product of the "abnormal" US-LDP alliance.
The Hatoyama government has already softened its stance on Futenma considerably by backing away from the position that the Futenma replacement facility should be outside of Okinawa. Is the Hatoyama government in a hopeless position? Gates may have been entirely sincere in the message he delivered in Tokyo, but it also is not a bad bargaining stance either. If ratcheting up pressure on the new government forces it to drop the issue — perhaps with a minor concession like this — the US will have gotten its way with little effort expended. But I doubt that the government will back down easily, certainly not without compensation. The domestic politics of the issue do not favor backing down: its coalition partners, the SDPJ in particular, want Futenma out of Okinawa, the DPJ is largely united against the current agreement, and the Okinawan people and their representatives are unhappy with the current agreement. Were it to back down now that it has put Futenma at the top of its agenda in advance of President Obama's visit next month, the Hatoyama government's public approval rating would probably suffer. And, beyond the government's interests, it should be stressed that the prime minister and his ministers actually object to the substance of the current agreement and want it changed and are willing to exhaust political capital to do so (and to show that a DPJ-led government is capable of standing up to the US).
If the Hatoyama government does not back down, what options are available to the Obama administration that won't make Futenma a bigger problem than it already is? If the administration simply refuses to talk about Futenma and then blames the agreement's failure on the Hatoyama government, how can it expect a constructive relationship with the new government on other issues? Would the Obama administration contemplate abandoning Futenma unilaterally and leaving the Japanese government to clean up after the Marines? I doubt that the situation will come to any of these scenarios. The US has little to gain by letting the issue fester — and, ironically, despite Gates's desire to "move on," rejecting the Hatoyama government's desire to renegotiate outright may be the surest way to guarantee that the allies will be unable to move beyond the question of what to do about Futenma and US forces in Okinawa.
The US ought to acknowledge that the Hatoyama government has actually shown itself to be relatively flexible on the question of Futenma when compared with earlier DPJ statements. The Obama administration must recognize that to simply say no to a Hatoyama government that is desperate to find a solution — that shares Gates's desire to move on — is to make it harder for the US and Japan to turn their attention to other, more important issues. For the sake of both countries I hope that Gates's position is not the Obama administration's final position.
And as for the Hatoyama government? Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has a month until President Obama visits Japan. He should at the very least be ready to provide some idea of what concessions will be necessary to get the Japanese government to back away from more comprehensive revisions, however difficult it may be do so.
However tetchy the relationship looks at the moment, this is not a crisis for the alliance, but rather the DPJ simply doing what it said it was going to do: speak honestly to the US. When was the last time, after all, that a meeting of senior US and Japanese officials carried even a whiff of public controversy? As Ichiro Ozawa reportedly said in a meeting with US Ambassador John Roos, "I want the US to speak frankly about any problems, just as I think that Japan's DPJ government should speak directly to the US."
Other posts by Tobias Harris: