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Controversy over Relocating Futenma base

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • October 31, 2009

    In September, 2009 before becoming the Prime Minister of Japan, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Yukio Hatoyama indicated a major foreign policy change, i.e. steering away from the alliance relationship with the United States and pursuing a more independent foreign policy with a focus on Asia. In particular, the DPJ had promised the Japanese electorate that the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (MCAS) in Okinawa will be relocated to Henoko in Nago. After assuming office, it transpires that Hatoyama is no great hurry to do this and says that the relocation of the Futenma military airfield in Okinawa must wait, at least not before President Barack Obama visits Tokyo in November 2009.

    The MCAS is a US Marine Corps base located in Ginowan, northeast of Naha on the island of Okinawa. It is home to approximately 4,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and has been a US military airbase since the island was occupied following the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Marine Corps pilots and aircrew are assigned to the base for training and providing air support to other land-based Marines in Okinawa.

    Due to its urban location, concerns surrounding training flights over residential areas causing noise, air pollution and endangering public safety have become controversial issues in Ginowan city. These safety concerns were heightened after a Marine Corps CH-53D transport helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University in August 2004. Earlier in December 1996, the governments of the two countries agreed on the relocation of the air base to an off-shore location in Henoko Bay in Nago, north of Okinawa. This was and remains a controversial decision as the proposed site involved construction on a coral reef and seagrass beds which are the habitat of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal protected under Japanese and US law.

    On 26 October 2005, both Japan and the US agreed to move the relocation site for Futenma from the reef to the interior and coastal portions of the existing Marine infantry base at Camp Schwab, just a few hundred meters away from the offshore facility. Building a runway on reefs in deep water was cited as an engineering challenge which would have taken at least 15-plus years and therefore the new Camp Schwab plan was approved. The new plan is estimated to take less time of approximately six to eight years to implement. The Mayor of Nago, which hosts Camp Schwab, formally agreed to accept the relocation when he signed an agreement with Defense Minister Nukaga on 8 April 2006.

    There is widespread reaction to the planned relocation of Futenma base in Okinawa. There are two major divisions among Okinawans – those who remain convinced that military facilities and associated public works infrastructure benefit the island’s economy and those who simply object to the US military presence on ideological grounds.

    In Thailand where he was attending the ASEAN summit meeting in October 2009, Prime Minister Hatoyama categorically said that he will be the one who decides what to do about the air station, contradicting what Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada had said a day before. Okada had said that it was unrealistic to shift the functions of Futenma from Okinawa. Although the 2006 agreement plans to move the airfield’s functions to an area off the coast of Nago by 2014, Okada said that he personally favours transferring Futenma’s operations to the nearby US Kadena base. Washington is putting pressure on Tokyo to abide by the 2006 accord and reach a conclusion by the time Obama visits Japan between 12 and13 November 2009.

    The Futenma issue is highly sensitive both for relations with Washington and for internal political reasons. The residents of Okinawa, home to about 47,000 US military forces in Japan, complain about crime, noise and pollution associated with the bases and say they have borne an unfair share of the burden for the security alliance. Though Hatoyama’s government wants the base moved off the island, which lies 1,600 (1,000 miles) from the mainland, Washington says that this would undermine broader security agreements.

    Notwithstanding conflicting public statements by Hatoyama and Okada, the general consensus of the DPJ government is that the sentiment of the people ought to be respected as was promised during the election campaign. Indeed, the long-planned reorganization of the US military presence in Japan is the first big test of ties between Washington and the new Japanese government that wants more equal relations with its closest security ally. How Hatoyama copes with the dispute could also affect voter support for the government, which is riding high and stands now at about 70 per cent in most polls.

    During his visit to Japan in October 2009, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates 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. In a joint Press Conference with Japanese Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi, Gates categorically said: “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. 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 have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe that they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable.”

    The Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial that the power transfers in both countries offer sufficient justification for reviewing the agreement and studying new ideas if necessary. Hatoyama probably wants to wait till the Nago Mayoral election is held in January 2010 before making the decision. If Hatoyama seriously plans to propose revisions to the current plan, the administration needs to build solid consensus at home for swift execution and persuade Washington to accept the changes. But judging Gates’ remarks, Washington is unwilling to compromise. Gates said unless the relocation to Henoko is realized, the Futenma base will remain at its current location and the entire realignment plan of US forces in Japan, including the proposed transfer of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, will be stalled.

    The Japanese public and people in Okinawa are not convinced of the plan to reclaim land in the sea blessed with valuable nature to build a new military base in the prefecture, which is already filled with US bases.

    The Hatoyama government seems to be vulnerable to US pressure. The US, on its part, has been insensitive to the concerns of the Okinawans and Gates’s tough talk did not go down well with the people of Japan. The domestic politics surrounding the issue do not favour Hatoyama backing down. The DPJ’s coalition partners, the SDPJ in particular, want Futenma out of Okinawa, and the DPJ is largely united against the current agreement. If Hatoyama succumbs to Washington’s pressure in advance of President Obama’s visit to Japan on 12-13 November 2009, his government’s public approval rating may suffer.

    It is in the mutual interests of both Japan and the US that the Futenma relocation issue must not strain the bilateral alliance. The foundation of the alliance is shared basic interests and mutual trust and it would be unfortunate if the Futenma issue is blown out of proportion and damages the relationship. The diplomatic dispute highlights the overall future of the bilateral alliance, which turns 50 in 2010, as both face the challenge of a China. The Japan-US relationship might appear to face some impending strain, but the Futenma issue is definitely not a crisis for the alliance. For now the DPJ has been honest in speaking frankly and honestly and the US is expected to appreciate this. The Futenma issue is therefore unlikely to be allowed to derail the decades-old alliance relationship, irrespective of the fact that there is now a government in Japan headed by the DPJ, which was in the opposition for all the years since World War II.