Japan’s new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, is a nice guy, unfailingly polite, and overall a pleasure to work with. He’s also very smart, well-informed about strategy and foreign policy, and deeply committed to enhancing the US-Japan relationship.
So it comes as no surprise that his appointment as Japan’s chief diplomat was welcomed in Washington.
But there’s a problem. Many in Washington assume that Maehara will carry with him a magic solution to the lingering problem of whether and how to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, on Okinawa. The Futenma issue is holding the US-Japan bilateral alliance as virtual hostage.
Maehara has no magic solution; there is none. Indeed, political momentum is decidedly against current plans to construct a Futenma replacement facility in the Henoko Bay area of Okinawa, north of the Futenma base, which has long been scheduled to close. On September 12, residents of Nago City, in which the Henoko area is located, elected a municipal assembly with a large majority opposed to the Futenma replacement project. Nago City’s mayor, elected earlier this year, is a firm opponent.
Many in Tokyo were reportedly stunned by the vote, but that simply reinforced the impression that an enormous gulf exists between Tokyo and Okinawans. There was never any serious doubt which way the assembly elections would go.
And there is no realistic reason to doubt the outcome of the gubernatorial election for Okinawa Prefecture, scheduled for November 28. The challenger, Yoichi Iha, is a fierce opponent of the Henoko project. The incumbent, Hirokazu Nakaima, is growing exceedingly weary of straddling a ”maybe” position, and won’t even have the leeway to approve the project should he win reelection and still harbor any inclination to do so.
Seiji Maehara knows this. For the past year, he has doubled as State Minister for Okinawa, along with his main cabinet role as transportation minister. Maehara quietly spent a lot of time trying to influence the outcome of the Nago elections in favor of pro-base candidates, and came up woefully short.
The only way the Henoko project could proceed is for Prime Minister Kan to order police forces to dislodge the many protesters almost sure to line the perimeter should efforts be made to shun local opinion and forcibly begin construction. Kan, a former civic organizer, is not about to do that. Any attempt to do so would hold dire political consequences for his government, and could conceivably spark ugly demonstrations against the US military presence in Okinawa, and perhaps across Japan.
It is hard to believe that the US-Japan security alliance, which is absolutely critical to peace and stability in East Asia and beyond, is threatened with disruption over what many analysts agree is a base of minor importance. (Former US ambassador to Japan, Mike Armacost, has called the current US policy “stupid.”) But that is exactly the situation.
The top two US negotiators, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of Defense Chip Gregson, know that the current US plan to build a replacement base in Henoko is unworkable. But they have been unable to convince Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, or the upper echelons of the National Security Council staff to change course. None of them want to go through the laborious, politically-arduous task of convincing the Marines to develop new basing options, and to coordinate new plans with Congress and Guam, which is scheduled to eventually be home to 8,600 Marines now based on Okinawa.
Unfortunately, a severe attitude of impatience bordering on derision toward Japan has taken hold in parts of the Obama Administration. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan Security Treaty, but the White House has blocked the holding of any significant events to celebrate the occasion. The ministers of defense and foreign affairs of the two countries routinely gather each year in New York at the time of the UN General Assembly, for a bilateral security dialogue known as the 2+2. Not this year, because the Futenma issue remains unresolved. (There is talk now in Tokyo of trying to convene a 2+2 meeting in December, but that is based on hope in Tokyo that Washington will finally accept the Kan government’s inability to move forward on Henoko.)
All of this comes in the midst of close cooperation between the US and Japan on a range of critical security issues that belies the notion of a relationship in disarray. Japan has naval forces in the Arabian Sea, for example, working with US and other naval forces against piracy. Japanese ground forces were dispatched to Pakistan recently to assist relief efforts in the wake of devastating floods. Japan worked closely with the US and South Korea in the wake of North Korea’s apparent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year. The major naval exercises held by the United States in the vicinity of China recently, held as a not-so-subtle message to China to act with restraint in the region, took place with Japanese military observers on board. The USS George Washington aircraft carrier embarked for the exercises from recently-upgraded facilities at its home port in Yokosuka, Japan. The George Washington’s air wing is now operating from a new $2 billion runway built with Japanese assistance at the US Marine Air Station Iwakuni.
In short, the US-Japan alliance is functioning well, and could be functioning better, if not for the insistence from Washington that the Futenma replacement project is some kind of litmus test of Japan’s commitment.
Maehara will not be able to solve that problem. Only a policy change in Washington will do, and there are still precious few signs that the White House yet understands that diplomatic temper tantrums or political stiff arms won’t alter this entrenched reality of domestic Japanese affairs.