Future of US Bases Bolstered in Japan

May 24th, 2010 - by admin

Jacob M. Schlesinger & Peter Spiegel / Wall Street Journal – 2010-05-24 00:34:24


TOKYO & WASHINGTON (May 23, 2010) — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama gave up on a bedrock campaign pledge and accepted a longstanding US proposal for positioning American troops in Japan, backing down from a battle with Washington as the two nations grapple with North Korea’s aggression and China’s rising power in the region.

The move hands the Obama administration an important foreign-policy victory, allowing Washington to avoid what, for a time, appeared to be an unwelcome need to rearrange its regional defense strategy in North Asia while fighting two wars and navigating other tense diplomatic and economic tussles around the world.

Mr. Hatoyama cited “political uncertainties remaining in East Asia,” for his change of heart, saying, “we cannot afford to reduce the U.S. military deterrence.” His decision comes after a rise in tensions in the region, including North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and heightened Chinese military activity in Japanese waters.

Beyond the specifics of the Marine bases in Japan, Mr. Hatoyama’s reversal is significant as a reaffirmation of Tokyo’s support for the US-Japan security alliance, the pillar of American military policy in the Pacific. Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide election victory last August after promising to reverse a number of policies of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. One target: the LDP’s handling of the half-century-old security alliance, which was negotiated and nurtured by the LDP and had lasted as long as the party’s nearly unbroken rule.

Mr. Hatoyama had unnerved Washington with talk of a more “equal” relationship, closer ties with China and creation of an East Asia community that would exclude the US.

Americans nervously watched Mr. Hatoyama’s attempts over the past eight months to rewrite a pact between the US and Japan to relocate the base—part of a broader US strategy to rearrange troops in Asia — and to shrink the US military footprint on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

US foreign-policy analysts argued that the dispute with such a close ally only served to highlight a series of differences with traditional US partners, including Israel, over settlement policies; India, over closer ties to Pakistan; and Eastern Europe, over Washington’s “reset” policy toward the Kremlin. Privately, allies have complained the White House risked taking its friends for granted even as it reached out to China, Russia and the Muslim world.

In the end, Mr. Hatoyama agreed to keep a large Marine presence in Okinawa, which hosts three-quarters of the American military stationed in Japan, and where the US presence has stirred deep opposition.

Obama administration officials were cautious in response, in part because Mr. Hatoyama’s handling of the matter has been inconsistent, and because a formal deal between the two countries won’t be sealed until a bilateral statement set for later this week.

“We are working closely with our ally Japan on a way forward that maintains regional security and stability in a manner that minimizes the impact on base-hosting communities,” Ben Chang, a deputy spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “U.S. bases are the front lines of our alliance, and an anchor of stability in the region,” he added.

Mr. Hatoyama’s Sunday announcement will smooth ties with the Obama administration, but raises the prospect of new domestic political trouble for his fragile ruling coalition—possibly including his resignation. Mr. Hatoyama’s poll ratings now stand about 20%, driven down sharply from the 70% range he once enjoyed. Zig-zagging on the Okinawa issue has been one factor undermining his popularity.

Mr. Hatoyama’s next challenge will be winning approval from certain Okinawan officials. U.S. officials conveyed confidence they could win that backing, in part by making small concessions to Mr. Hatoyama about the precise design of the base. Mr. Hatoyama said he would try to make the base more palatable by moving some training exercises to other parts of Japan.

But the decision was sharply criticized by local leaders. Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where the new base is to be built, told reporters the chances of the base moving to his town were “close to zero.”

A contrite Mr. Hatoyama chose to travel to Okinawa on Sunday to make his announcement, where he called it a “heartbreaking decision.

“I had said I would try to relocate the base outside of Okinawa, but I was not able to keep my word,” he told the island’s disgruntled governor during a nationally televised meeting. “And for the difficulties that local people have had to experience, I would like to apologize to the Okinawan people.”

The base controversy has revolved around where to move a Marine Corps Air Station currently located in a crowded urban area known as Futenma.

In 2006, Washington and Tokyo agreed to move the station outside the area to a less populated part of island, to diminish friction with the local population following a rape case and a helicopter crash. But leaders of that community opposed hosting the base, and Mr. Hatoyama’s government sought to move the Marines off Okinawa entirely.

Mr. Hatoyama’s ruling DPJ governs in a coalition with left-leaning smaller parties. The Social Democratic Party of Japan has made opposition to the Okinawa base a central condition for its support, and could walk out of the government.

“I really don’t understand why a Japan-U.S. agreement can come before there are any agreements either with Okinawan residents or within the ruling coalition,” Mizuho Fukushima, the head of the SDPJ and a member of the cabinet, told reporters.

Losing the SDPJ wouldn’t bring down Mr. Hatoyama’s government, but it could complicate his ability to push legislation through parliament, including a coming budget. And Mr. Hatoyama’s grip on power could become shakier if another coalition partner also threatens to leave over the matter—or if members of his own party demand he take responsibility for breaking a campaign pledge.

Juro Osawa in Tokyo and Elizabeth Williamson in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Jacob M. Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com and Juro Osawa at juro.osawa@dowjones.com.

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