It may be too soon to raise any diplomatic red flags, but there are troubling signs of potentially serious tension emerging between Washington and Tokyo over stalled plans to construct a new US Marine facility in Okinawa.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda held a briefing for reporters earlier today (Friday), and denied reports that President Barack Obama had pressed for “results” on the new facility, set to be built in the Henoko Bay area of Okinawa as a replacement for the existing US Marine Air Station Futenma, which has been targeted for closure for well over a decade. Obama and Noda met on Wednesday, while both were in New York for the UN General Assembly.
During the briefing, Noda was asked directly whether Obama had spoken of expected “results.” He responded first with a gesture, tilting his head to indicate disagreement with the question, and then said: “We explained our position. We made clear our plan to move forward on the agreement reached by the two governments, and I explained that we will reduce the burden on Okinawa, and that we have to work hard to not fix the status quo of Futenma’s continuing operation, and that we will talk to Okinawa with a sincere heart. Then we received an answer: ‘We are looking forward to progress.’”
Noda was pressed by another reporter, who quoted a US official – Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell – as having said Obama “made very clear” that “we need to see results.” Again, Noda denied this, saying: “I think the answer was: ‘We are looking forward to progress.’”
Here’s the problem: The reporter quoted Campbell accurately. In a press briefing held Wednesday following the Noda-Obama meeting, Campbell had this to say about the exchanges concerning Futenma: “We all acknowledged the challenges associated with Futenma replacement. But I think both sides understand that we’re approaching a period where we need to see results, and that was made very clear by the President.”
At the press briefing, Campbell was joined by Danny Russel, the top White House aide for Asia, who added: “On the issue of Futenma, Prime Minister Noda brought the President up to date on the Noda government position and strategy for moving forward on Futenma’s replacement facility, and both leaders shared the view that this is a priority and that there’s a great deal of important work that needs to be done. So the emphasis is on common ground and on a common effort to achieve our common goals.”
Complicating the situation is that a top Japanese official who briefed reporters after the Noda-Obama meeting indicated that Obama said that “results” are needed and that he hopes to see “progress.”
This may seem a bit of tedious, if not petty, diplomatic nuance. But it was less than two years ago that a disagreement over the content of an exchange between President Obama and then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over the very same Futenma issue sparked one of the more tense incidents between the two countries in the postwar period. At the time, Hatoyama urged Obama to “trust me,” that Tokyo would try to find a resolution to the Futenma embroilment as soon as possible. But when Hatoyama later indicated that this was not necessarily a commitment to implement the existing bilateral accord to construct the replacement facility at Henoko, Hillary Clinton took the highly-unusual step of summoning Japan’s ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, for a dressing-down at the State Department – in the midst of a blizzard that had otherwise crippled Washington.
At the time, the incident severely frayed trust between the White House and the Kantei, and the subsequent chilly treatment accorded Hatoyama by Washington contributed to the demise of his cabinet a few months later.
THE VIEW FROM TOKYO: What’s on Noda’s mind? Japanese officials interpreted Obama’s demeanor in the New York meeting as unusually business-like. One official who was inside the meeting reports that Obama began with a systematic listing of those bilateral issues that need a quick resolution. That was followed by the Campbell-Russel press conference, the tone of which also took Japanese officials by surprise. Correctly or not, they say they detected a hardening of Campbell’s stance, in sharp contrast to what they saw as deliberate State Department efforts to play down the Futenma issue since Hatoyama’s 2010 resignation.
Noda’s comments came on the heels of a statement by Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa that conveyed no small hint of irritation at the perceived hectoring tone of Campbell’s remarks. “When it comes to the Okinawa issue,” Ichikawa told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday, “both sides carry responsibility. It would be awkward if the two sides were to not show an attitude of working together in a harmonious manner.” Ichikawa is already on record saying that the Noda government, while committed to the Henoko plan, has no intention of imposing a deadline on talks with Okinawa aimed at winning acquiescence.
Noda and Ichikawa each have personal motivations that could help explain their respective comments following the talks with Obama. Every prime minister of Japan wants to demonstrate the ability to skillfully manage the critical US-Japan alliance, so the last perception Noda wants to take hold is that he is being pushed around by Washington. And Ichikawa, who is close to Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) power broker Ichiro Ozawa, sympathizes with the view that Japan should be more forthright in expressing disagreements with Washington.
But beyond Noda and Ichikawa, a much broader array of Japanese foreign policy and political leaders are aware that the Pentagon and the White House are encountering serious obstacles to implanting the US side of the bilateral deal for Marine base realignment on Okinawa and Guam. Key members of the US Senate – Democrats Carl Levin and Jim Webb, and Republican John McCain -- have raised both budgetary and strategic concerns about the realignment plan, which could cost upwards of $20 billion. The Senate’s Appropriations Defense Subcommittee has already moved to strip the 2012 Defense budget of $155 million for construction programs on Guam designed to help pave the way for the transfer of some 8,000 Marines and family members from Okinawa.
Since Hatoyama’s resignation, the DPJ overall has been determined to allow no light between the US and Japanese sides on the Futenma issue, lest the party’s leader suffer a fate similar to that of the ex-prime minister.
Awareness of troubles on the American side has apparently allowed to seep out some of the repressed frustration in Tokyo with US demands to move ahead with the Futenma replacement project despite seemingly insurmountable opposition on Okinawa.
The Pentagon and White House have, until recently, pretended to ignore Congressional opposition to the Okinawa base realignment plan. The entire plan was initially scheduled for completion by 2014, but the two sides earlier this year acknowledged the obvious by stating the deadline would not be met. The US has placed blame for implementation delays squarely on Tokyo’s inability to overcome opposition on Okinawa, even though rising costs and construction delays on Guam have been equally responsible.
During his recent confirmation hearings to be the new deputy defense secretary, Ashton Carter received extensive briefings from Senator Levin, who chairs the powerful Armed Services Committee, and Senator Webb, who chairs the Asia subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. Webb in particular explained to Carter that overtures to alter the Okinawa base realignment plan will have to come from Washington, since Tokyo will be reluctant to risk antagonizing the US by indicating a weakening of support for the existing bilateral agreement.
WASHINGTON MISSING AN OPPORTUNITY: It’s unclear how much of the briefing material received by Carter has made it up to President Obama. In any case, part of the apparent White House impatience stems from a desire for Japan to be fully in tune with a strategic vision for East Asia that President Obama hopes to highlight during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hawaii in November. Part of that involves the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which Campbell emphasized during his New York press briefing are intended more as a strategic rather than a mere trade policy. Noda has indicated personal support for TPP, but there is no consensus yet in Japan about whether to fully participate. And part of the vision involves the US and Japan standing shoulder-to-should on alliance and regional security issues, something that is made more difficult the longer the Futenma controversy persists.
Ironically, impending major reductions in US defense spending, including likely cutbacks in overseas basing as well as personnel reductions, will almost surely impact the US force structure and basing arrangements in East Asia, including Okinawa. That could provide a face-saving chance for the US to propose a rethinking of the current plan for base realignment on Okinawa.
Unless that happens, the tension in the alliance over Okinawa that seems to be reemerging will only grow.