Over 21,000 people in Okinawa protest to demand the removal of the US bases from the prefecture, criticizing the plan to only relocate the Futenma US air base from its current location of Ginowan City to the Henoko district of Nago City, also in Okinawa. Photo: japan press-weekly
RATCHETING UP THE PRESSURE
The US military presence in Okinawa is a residue of the Cold War and a US commitment to containing the only military power on the horizon that could threaten American military supremacy. Back in the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration’s solution to a rising China was to “integrate, but hedge”. The hedge – against the possibility of China developing a serious mean streak – centered around a strengthened US-Japan alliance and a credible Japanese military deterrent.
What the Clinton administration and its successors didn’t anticipate was how effectively and peacefully China would disarm this hedging strategy with careful statesmanship and a vigorous trade policy. A number of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, succumbed early to China’s version of checkbook diplomacy. Then, in the last decade, South Korea, like the Japanese today, started to talk about establishing “more equal” relations with the US in an effort to avoid being drawn into any future military scrape between Washington and Beijing.
Now, with its arch-conservatives gone from government, Japan is visibly warming to China’s charms. In 2007, China had already surpassed the US as the country’s leading trade partner. On becoming prime minister, Hatoyama sensibly proposed the future establishment of an East Asian community patterned on the European Union. As he saw it, that would leverage Japan’s position between a rising China and a United States in decline. In December, while Washington and Tokyo were haggling bitterly over the Okinawa base issue, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa sent a signal to Washington as well as Beijing by shepherding a 143-member delegation of his party’s legislators on a four-day trip to China.
Not surprisingly, China’s bedazzlement policy has set off warning bells in Washington, where the People’s Republic is still a focus of primary concern for a cadre of strategic planners inside the Pentagon. The Futenma base – and its potential replacement – would be well situated, should Washington ever decide to send rapid response units to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, or the Korean peninsula. Strategic planners in Washington like to speak of the “tyranny of distance”, of the difficulty of getting “boots on the ground” from Guam or Hawaii in case of an East Asian emergency.
Yet the actual strategic value of Futenma is, at best, questionable. The South Koreans are more than capable of dealing with any contingency on the peninsula. And the UnitedStates frankly has plenty of firepower by air (Kadena) and sea (Yokosuka) within hailing distance of China. A couple thousand Marines won’t make much of a difference (though the leathernecks strenuously disagree). However, in a political environment in whichthe Pentagon is finding itself making tough choices between funding counterinsurgency wars and old Cold War weapons systems, the “China threat” lobby doesn’t want to give an inch.
Failure to relocate the Futenma base within Okinawa might be the first step down a slippery slope that could potentially put at risk billions of dollars in Cold War weapons still in the production line. It’s hard to justify buying all the fancy toys without a place to play with them.
And that’s one reason the Obama administration has gone to the mat to pressure Tokyo to adhere to the 2006 agreement. It even dispatched Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the Japanesecapital last October in advance of president Obama’s own Asian tour. Like an impatient father admonishing an obstreperous teenager, Gates lectured the Japanese ”to move on” and abide by the agreement – to the irritation of both the new government and the public. (See Gates gets grumpy in Tokyo, October 28, 2009)
The punditocracy has predictably closed ranks behind a bipartisanWashington consensus that the new Japanese government should become as accustomed to its junior status as its predecessor and stop making a fuss. The Obama administration is frustrated with “Hatoyama’s amateurish handling of the issue,” writesWashington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. “What has resulted from Mr Hatoyama’s failure to enunciate a clear strategy or action plan is the biggest political vacuum in over 50 years,” adds Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council. Neither analyst acknowledges that Tokyo’s only “failure” or “amateurish” move was to stand up to Washington. “The dispute could undermine security in East Asia on the 50th anniversary of an alliance that has served the region well,” intoned The Economist more bluntly. “Tough as it is for Japan’s new government, it needs to do most, though not all, of the caving in.”
The Hatoyama government is by no means radical, nor is it anti-American. It isn’t preparing to demand that all, or even many, US bases close. It isn’t even preparing to close any of the other three dozen (or so) bases on Okinawa. Its modest pushback is confined to Futenma, where it finds itself between the rock of Japanese public opinion and the hard place of Pentagon pressure.
Those who prefer to achieve Washington’s objectives with Japan in a more roundabout fashion counsel patience. “If America undercuts the new Japanese government and creates resentment among the Japanese public, then a victory on Futenma could prove Pyrrhic,” writes Joseph Nye, the architect of US Asia policy during the Clinton years. Japan hands are urging the UnitedStates to wait until the summer, when the DPJ has a shot at picking up enough additional seats in the next parliamentary elections to jettison its coalition partners, if it deems such a move necessary.
Even if the Social Democratic Party is no longer in the government constantly raising the Okinawa base issue, the DPJ still must deal with democracy on the ground. The Okinawans are dead set against a new base. The residents of Nago, where that base would be built, just elected a mayor who campaigned on a no-base platform. It won’t look good for the party that has finally brought real democracy to Tokyo to squelch it in Okinawa.
Image Source: Tuesdaysblog.com
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