Japan PM To Offer New Plan on Base Relocation

When in Japan last week, the news was dominated by a single issue - the new government's struggle to find a path on a long planned relocation of American troops on and from Okinawa Island. It is a complex issue, and one I won't try to explain now, but the Times is reporting that Prime Minister Hatoyama has publically committed to offer a plan to the US next week:

TOKYO — Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, said Wednesday that he wanted to present concrete proposals to President Obama next week in hopes of ending a growing rift between his new government and Washington over an American military air base in Okinawa.

Mr. Hatoyama did not disclose the content of the proposals, which he and members of his cabinet appeared to be still working out at the prime minister’s residence. Mr. Hatoyama said he may seek a meeting with Mr. Obama during the climate change conference in Copenhagen to relay the proposals directly to him.

In particular, it remained unclear if the proposals would seek to significantly alter a 2006 deal to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the middle of the city of Ginowan to a less populated part of Okinawa.

Mr. Hatoyama, who took office three months ago, is under political pressure in Japan to fulfill campaign pledges to move the base off Okinawa, if not out of Japan altogether. But Washington has adamantly opposed changing the current deal, which is part of a broader, laboriously negotiated agreement to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The discord over the base’s relocation has emerged as the most contentious topic in the countries’ increasingly tense relationship. Recent comments by some Japanese cabinet members, however, seem to reflect a growing sense of urgency to prevent the Futenma issue from causing a serious rupture in the relationship with the United States, Japan’s longtime protector.

Political analysts have said the dispute highlights the lack of communication between Tokyo and Washington after an election victory in August by Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party ended a half-century of leadership by the pro-American Liberal Democrats.

Fears of a rupture seemed to increase this week after Japan’s foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, announced Tuesday that talks over the Futenma issue had been suspended. A Japanese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media, said American negotiators had become irritated by Mr. Hatoyama’s delays in making a decision on the issue.

The handling of the Futenma issue has become an early and important test of the new government and its Prime Minister.  Whatever the final outcome, the new team has come off looking very indecisive and undisciplined.  Each morning last week we woke to news reports of different ministers offering competing and often contradictory positions on Futenma.  As a veteran of politics, I was astonished how their daily statements was keeping the story alive, and reinforcing the conflict with the US in the Japanese media.  On this issue, the new Hatoyama government has very much looked like a party new to power, struggling to find its way, caught in a political trap of their own making, and stumbling in their public management of it all.  All on arguably the single most important bilateral relationship and security matter the country has. 

So this new commitment to resolve the issue quickly is a critical early test for the new Prime Minister and his very popular government.   Solve it and they will look strong, decisive, ready to lead.  Letting this linger will likely begin to erode the DPJ's popularity, particularly as the country prepares next year to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the very successful, extraordinary security alliance with the United States.  There will be no way to ignore this issue now, sweep it under the rug, change the subject.  A better path must be found, and this story this am is welcome news for the Alliance and the new government of Japan.

Feel free to review the blog over the past few days to find other observations from my week long trip to Tokyo and Kyoto sponosored by the Tokyo Foundation (which is still keeping me mighty jet-lagged).

Reporting in From Japan

Had a productive first full day in Tokyo yesterday. Met with two leading members of the Japanese Diet, one from each of the two main parties (DPJ and LDP), and covered a great many issues.   The photo to the left is of me and Shoichi Katayama of the Tokyo Foundation, who along with Dr. Fumiaki Kubo, has put my trip together.  Afterwards I was able to tour the beautiful campus of the University of Tokyo and led a seminar for students of American politics there.  Ended the night with a wonderful dinner with Dr. Kubo and several members of the influential think tank here, Asian Forum Japan. I am, needless to say, learning a great deal at a time of siginifcant political foment and change here in Japan.

Some initial observations:

- Absent some significant blunder, the newly in power Democratic Party of Japan appears to be in a very strong position for the short and medium term, and is likely to take over the Upper House in next year's elections.  They are aggressively attacking some of the LDP's sacred political cows, shaking up politics here more than it has been shaken up in perhaps half a century.  It feels like a transitional moment, from one political era to the next, with the DPJ in control but not quite yet on an even keel.

- As Rob Shapiro and other analysts have noted, it is important for America to be following what is happening in this economy, the 2nd largest in the world.  While not directly analogous to what is happening in the United States, the lack of income growth, overall slugishness of this mature, developed economy and a newly elected political party not yet exactly sure what to do next to revive broad-based prosperity reminds me a bit of the debate at home.   The Times/Herald Tribune has this piece today looking at the latest move by the Bank of Japan to increase lending and investment.  Our two large, technologically advanced, global, mature economies may have more in common than either country would like to admit, suggesting greater collaboration opportunities in the future.

- Finally, the Hatoyama Administration's review of the US-Japan relationship.  I will have more to say about this in coming days, but there can be no doubt that the DPJ is raising fundamental questions about this long and successful alliance that have perhaps not been raised in the last 50 years.  This is a complex issue, and feels like in the end, if handled well by all involved, could result in a strong affirmation of our powerful alliance with our old and good friend here on this remarkable island nation.  Of course it could end up otherwise too.  But it is clear the new Party is putting some important issues on the table here and intend to have a substantive conversation about whether Japan needs to recalibrate its foreign policy in a changing world.  It will be important for American policy makers, led by our able Ambassador here, John Roos, to be significantly engaged in this important debate in the months and perhaps years ahead. 

More meetings today.  Will report in later on.

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