from Asia Unbound

Unfinished Business: The Futenma Story

November 13, 2009

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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As President Obama gets ready to visit Tokyo, much of the media coverage focuses on the high politics of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Is this tension a temporary affliction caused by the transition in Tokyo? Or is this the sign that the bilateral relationship has run aground, and will need a serious repair effort? All eyes are on the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the new government, and its first test of alliance management.

The issue that has been at the heart of this moment of alliance crisis is a seemingly endless problem of how to close Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa, and the decade or more long effort to find a replacement site for the Marine helicopters that use it.

At the moment, many are critical of the DPJ’s handling of this issue, especially here in Washington, DC. I constantly hear the complaint that the Japanese government should just get on with it. Base issues are a part of every alliance, and they should not interrupt the larger task of diplomatic collaboration that is the lifeblood of alliance relationships.

I agree – this is not the issue that President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama should be talking about this week.

But here is the rub. Why can’t we solve the Futenma issue? For over a decade, the effort to close Futenma has been a full-time job for many of our defense planners working on the U.S.-Japan alliance, and yet here we sit.

So for the next several installments of my contribution to Asia Unbound, I will explore the dynamics of this seemingly unending, complex, and irritating “problem” in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Before I lead you through all of the intricacies and personalities that populate this story, let me warn you up front that I don’t have a neat and tidy conclusion that directs us to a solution to the “Futenma problem.”  Moreover, I don’t think any of us understand how the current episode in the discussion of how to relocate the U.S. Marines will turn out.

Everyone has their preferences….

The former Japanese government concluded a “package” of compromises with Washington and Okinawa that resulted in the current plan to move the Marines helicopters out of Futenma, and, in return, the United States would move 8,000 Marines and their families to new bases in Guam. The governor of Okinawa has come to the conclusion that this works. If he agrees to relocate the Marines to Camp Schwab, another Marine facility in northern Okinawa, and to construct a new runway for their use, then a considerable portion of U.S. military facilities will return to civilian use in central Okinawa and the number of U.S. forces on his island will diminish considerably. As he says, the best idea is to remove the Marines from Okinawa, but this plan gets us part way to that goal.

The Obama Administration inherited the current plan from the Bush Administration, but has come to a similar conclusion. It seems that the Futenma Replacement Facility designed for northern Okinawa is the only realistic option, and while other ideas were considered, they all had considerable drawbacks. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Tokyo a few weeks ago, “this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on."

……everyone, that is, except for the new government in Japan where there seem to be various views within the cabinet. Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has suggested that moving the Marines off of Okinawa is the best option. To date, he has not indicated where they might go or what he is prepared to do to persuade the United States to move them.

Last Sunday, 21,000 Okinawa residents gathered for a kenmin taikai– a prefectural rally - to declare they rejected the current proposal. The conservative mayor of Naha City was there, as were several local politicians affiliated with the ruling DPJ. A conspicuous presence was the challenger for the seat of mayor of Nago City, a progressive candidate who argues that his locality – home to Camp Schwab – should not accept the current plan to construct a new runway in his neighborhood.

We have been here before in the effort to find a replacement facility in Okinawa for the Marines. This sounds almost identical to 1998 when similar events consumed our attention.

I won’t tell you how to fix this, but instead I’ll explore some of the elements of this story that repeats itself. By the end, you might reach the same conclusion I have: this is not a story best understood as a narrative of the U.S.-Japan security alliance (though that subplot is there). Instead, it is a story that reflects how difficult decision making has become in Japan, and how entrenched certain interests have become. Ironically, these interests are not only to be found in Japan. They include the United States as well.

Think of it not as a “base problem” with all of the attendant frustrations that this suggests to diplomats and military planners, but rather as an episode in the ongoing dynamic of political change in Japan, a dynamic colored by the particular vibes of Okinawa but reflective of the broader national tension over how Japan should move forward .

President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama will both want to tread carefully on the Futenma issue when they meet this week, but everyone knows that the story of U.S. bases is likely to keep these two world leaders tied firmly to the situation on the ground in Okinawa and to the legacies of fifty some years of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

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