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).

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