Some unofficial diplomacy in Washington over the next two weeks should provide clues as to how the Noda and Obama administrations will approach deadlocked plans to realign the US Marine presence on Okinawa.
The best bet: A new Marine air station envisioned for the Henoko Bay area of Okinawa will not be built, and the existing Futenma air station will remain open until enough time has elapsed for the two sides to take a fresh look at the whole issue.
The diplomacy kicks off today (September 7) with a seminar on the US-Japan alliance since 3-11, co-sponsored by the Stimson Center and the Sasegawa Peace Foundation. The keynote speakers will be Seiji Maehara, recently named by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to be policy chief for the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ), and Senator Jim Webb, a former US Navy secretary and a decorated Marine officer who has rankled the Pentagon with his strong opposition to the Henoko plan.
Two weeks later, on September 19, Prof. Mike Mochizuki of George Washington University will host a conference on Okinawa that will feature a presentation by Hirokazu Nakaima, governor of Okinawa prefecture. Nakaima continues to voice strong opposition to the Henoko plan.
DEADLOCK IN TOKYO: In Tokyo, Noda’s new administration shows no inclination to invest the enormous political and financial capital that would be required for even a hope of winning Okinawan acquiescence. The new prime minister has huge tasks on his agenda, including reconstruction of the devastated Tohoku region, resolving the Fukushima nuclear emergency, tackling the nation’s burgeoning debt problem, and taming the rising yen. Breaking the Futenma-Henoko log jam is not a priority.
But US-Japan relations are a priority, so top Japanese officials will continue to voice support for the Henoko plan, so as to forestall the issue once again provoking anger in Washington and causing instability in the bilateral alliance. All the while they will continue to “explain” to Washington the need for more time to bring along Okinawan public opinion.
It’s a scene that has played out repeatedly over the 18 months, ever since former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was treated as a virtual pariah by the Obama administration and other US officials for having urged that the two countries consider alternatives to the Henoko plan. Painfully aware of the treatment accorded Hatoyama, no DPJ leader (with the possible exception of a weakened Ichiro Ozawa) is willing to risk a direct confrontation with Washington over the Henoko-Futenma issue. By default, if nothing else, the DPJ policy has been to keep the issue on policy life-support at the working level, allowing no light between the official US and Japanese positions, while actually taking no real steps toward implementation.
The Noda cabinet has no one steeped in Okinawa issues, and no one with the heavyweight political gravitas to forge a new understanding between Okinawa and Tokyo.
MISREADING THE DPJ: Maehara, the DPJ’s policy chief and a staunch supporter of the US-Japan alliance, is often misunderstood in Washington as someone the US could count on to push hard for the Henoko plan. Little known is that Maehara took the opposite position while Hatoyama was in power. At the time, Maehara, in addition to being transportation minister, was also state minister for Okinawa issues. While then-Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and then-Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada fairly quickly abandoned Hatoyama’s (and the DPJ’s) goal of an alternative to the Henoko plan, Maehara continued to work tirelessly long thereafter in favor of the original DPJ stance. Indeed, Kitazawa and Okada took to freezing Maehara out of their discussions on the Henoko-Futenma issue in the winter and spring of 2010.
Meanwhile, Noda has named Akihisa Nagashima to be his special advisor on foreign and security matters, which will almost surely involve him in Okinawa issues. Nagashima, also a staunch supporter of the US-Japan alliance and advocate of a bigger regional and global security role for Japan, was initially sympathetic to the DPJ idea that the US and Japan, as allies, could together find an acceptable alternative to the Henoko plan. But during an October 2009 visit to Washington, in his capacity as a senior vice minister of defense, Nagashima was on the receiving end of a stern, sobering lecture by then-US national security advisor General Jim Jones about the vital importance of the planned Henoko facility. Nagashima later relayed the substance of the exchange to some reporters in Washington.
Ironically, Jones has since shifted his stance, and argues that the US operations now run from Futenma could largely be integrated into the huge US Air Force base at Kadena, also on Okinawa. Jones’s revised view parallels that of Senator Webb.
The new foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, is a rising star within the DPJ, but he is relatively new to foreign affairs, and lacks the political power base in Tokyo both in the Diet and within the bureaucracy that would be required to negotiate a new arrangement with Okinawa.
The new defense minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, is already in hot water politically over his failed effort at self-deprecatory humility; a defense minister should probably not declare himself an amateur on matters of national security. It is unlikely that Ichikawa, should he survive calls for his resignation, will be taking the lead on Okinawa issues.
At the bureaucratic level, the central government is going through some of the motions required for implementation of the Henoko plan. A senior Defense Ministry official recently informed Governor Nakaima of plans to submit by the end of this year an environmental impact statement regarding the Henoko facility. The government would then apply to the governor’s office for permission to begin reclaiming land in Henoko Bay waters. The project requires the Governor’s prior approval.
All of this will enable Noda to give an upbeat report about his efforts when he meets President Obama in New York later this month.
In reality, Governor Nakaima shows no signs of altering his opposition to the Henoko plan, though he remains a staunch supporter of the US-Japan alliance. (It will be difficult for anyone to peg him as harboring anti-American sentiments.)
Nakaima will make his views widely known when he visits Washington later this month.
OPPOSITION ON THE HILL: The situation in Washington concerning Henoko-Futenma, and the overall restructuring of the US Marine presence, is only slightly less-unsettled. Leon Panetta is still putting his team in place. Mark Lippert, a White House favorite, has survived a grueling vetting process and should soon be nominated to be the Pentagon’s new policy chief for East Asia. It remains unclear how Panetta and Lippert will approach the Okinawa issue.
The Marines, meanwhile, are in the midst of an internal study, ordered by then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates, about future roles and missions. The Marine Corps will shrink in size considerably in the coming years, as the US further winds down the taxing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Marines resume their more traditional role as an expeditionary, amphibious force.
With China rising, East Asia’s strategic significance will only continue to grow. But a debt-weary Congress is under great pressure to reduce US defense spending. Finding the proper US strategic posture and force structure in East Asia will be a compelling task for Panetta’s new team.
For all of the pressure on Tokyo to proceed with the Henoko project, the US is woefully far behind on implementation of its side of the realignment of US forces in Japan. Construction delays, cost overruns, and fears of insufficient infrastructure have all raised doubts about the feasibility any time soon of relocating 8,000 Marines and 9,000 family members from Okinawa to Guam, as called for in the 2006 “roadmap” agreed to by the two countries.
Three senior US senators – Jim Webb, along with Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin and the Committee’s ranking Republican John McCain – have joined forces in opposition to the planned Marine restructuring on Okinawa and Guam. Congress has slowed funding.
Given the troubles on the US side, it is little wonder that a top DPJ official said recently that the Noda government will likely wait for the Obama administration to take the next step.
Some influential American policy makers, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, argue that while the Henoko project is dead, it is up to Japan to come forward with an alternative basing arrangement that is both operationally feasible and politically sustainable.
That is unlikely to occur however, as Japanese political leaders do not want to suffer the consequences experienced by Hatoyama. From the Japanese perspective, the ball is really in the American court.
It will take some time before the political leadership in both Washington and Tokyo will see the way to set aside the 2006 roadmap, and jointly devise an alliance force structure and posture in East Asia that fits the region’s vital strategic importance.