For well over a month now, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his top aides have privately been telling anyone and everyone within listening distance that a deal with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima over a controversial US Marine base in Japan’s southern-most prefecture was all-but signed, sealed, and delivered.
Now it seems that Abe vastly over-promised, and the prime minister’s office (Kantei) finds itself scrambling to put together a package of last-minute concessions that Nakaima will need if he has any chance of selling a compromise to the frustrated Okinawan public.
As the pro-Abe newspaper Yomiuri put it on December 24, “The government is making last-ditch efforts to ensure Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima gives his approval for land reclamation work off Henoko in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, by the end of the year, which is necessary to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in the prefecture…The government is desperately trying to win the governor’s approval by the end of the year. Meanwhile. Nakaima is poised to see whether the government will come up with measures aimed at reducing the burden of hosting U.S. forces in the prefecture that will be accepted by residents.”
None of this last-minute maneuvering was foreseen by the Kantei, as Nakaima and Okinawa have proven to be tougher than expected to subdue.
On December 24 (Tokyo time), the Cabinet approved a record-breaking national budget for FY2014 that includes a promise of an unprecedented $3 billion per year in subsidies for Okinawa in each of the next 8 years. Nakaima is scheduled to meet with Abe at 1:30 pm December 25, at which time he is expected to thank the prime minister for the economic aid, but hold off for at least a few days on any definitive comment on the land reclamation work and the future of the disputed Marine base on Okinawa. December 27 is the last day of work this year for the prefectural government.
Given that Tokyo has threatened to cut off economic subsidies should Nakaima reject plans for the new Marine facility, it seems unlikely Nakaima will issue a blanket denial. At the same time, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga yesterday told the closed circle of reporters who cover his office that the Abe government cannot guarantee an early shutdown of the Futenma facility, which is a key Nakaima demand.
Thus, it also seems unlikely that Nakaima will deliver a blanket approval for construction of the new Marine facility to proceed. A “yes but with conditions” would be more in line with the governor’s longstanding view that the disputed Marine base must be quickly closed and relocated outside of Okinawa. As one Okinawan official said, “To simply take at word the government’s promise to ‘do it’s best’ would be like accepting a check that is not signed.”
Politically, the net result will be to kick the issue down the road to January 19, when the incumbent mayor of Nago City, Susumu Inamine, a fierce opponent of the new Marine facility, faces a reelection challenge from the LDP-backed Bunshin Suematsu. The vote will amount to a referendum on the new Marine facility. An Inamine victory, which now seems likely, would pose a huge barrier before Abe and the US.
LONG TIME COMING: The US and Japanese governments committed to closing MCAS Futenma in 1996, and later decided it would be replaced by a new facility, complete with a questionable runway, further north in the pristine Henoko Bay, close to Nago City.
For years, every leading political organ in Okinawa, from the Governor’s office, to the prefectural assembly, and the prefecture’s 41 municipal assemblies, to the 5 Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) representatives from Okinawa in the national Diet, to the prefectural chapter of the LDP has opposed what became known as the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) plan. All have been urging early closure of the Futenma air station, and construction of an alternative facility outside of Okinawa, which currently hosts 75% of US military installations in Japan.
In the face of stiff Okinawan opposition, the central government has been unable to make any progress. Meanwhile, despite the resulting tensions in the US-Japan alliance, and the availability of alternatives, the civilian leaders working for 3 consecutive US presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) have been unwilling to push the military services to formulate a more politically-sustainable plan.
Thus, the 17 year standoff ensued.
ABE’S CARROTS AND STICKS: Abe came to office one year ago determined to settle the FRF issue, both to mollify an impatient Washington and, more importantly, to further boost his credentials as a leader who can imbue Japan with a revived sense of national and military pride.
Supporters and critics alike have been stunned by the single-minded ruthlessness with Abe and his aides have tackled the FRF issue. Shortly after a visit to Washington earlier this year, Abe submitted a formal request to Okinawa that Tokyo be allowed to proceed with the land reclamation required for construction of the runways for the envisioned Henoko facility. That started the clock rolling on an approximately 8 month evaluation process by the Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPG), which Nakaima has indicated he would like to conclude by the end of this year.
During this 8 month period, the Abe government has tried to lure Nakaima and the OPG with economic subsidies, such as a sped-up plan for construction of a second runway at Naha International Airport, increased funding for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, and construction of a new railway system on the main island of Okinawa.
At the same time, the central government and the LDP headquarters has strong-armed politicians into submission. On November 25, all five of the LDP members in the national Diet dramatically reversed themselves, and announced they would now back the FRF plan. The five had won Diet seats during the 2010 and 2013 Upper House elections, and the 2013 Lower House election, during which time, with the backing of the local Okinawa chapter of the LDP, they campaign vehemently against the FRF. According to three of the members, they changed their minds after having been threatened with expulsion from the party by LDP secretary general Shigeru Ishiba.
The drama was played out in a televised press conference, where the humiliated Diet members sat quietly, heads bowed, as an imperious Ishiba hovered above them on a podium.
Two days later, the Okinawa chapter of the LDP followed suit, announcing that it too had undergone a dramatic change-of-mind, and now would support the FRF at Henoko. Keep in mind that of the 15 LDP members of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly elected in the June 2012 elections, 14 won on a platform of strict opposition to the FEF-Henoko plan.
The head of the LDP chapter in Okinawa, Masatoshi Onaga, resigned as a result of the chapter’s sudden reversal, saying “There has been strong lobbying by the government.” He said that Tokyo warned that the existing MCAS Futenma would simply remain open indefinitely, despite the ever-present danger of an accident in a close-by neighborhood, if the FRF-Henoko did not proceed.
In Okinawa’s most important city, Mayor Takeshi Onaga of Naha bitterly denounced the LDP headquarters in Tokyo. “It is an extremely unfortunate situation that LDP headquarters have put pressure on the Okinawan branch to accept the plan to move Futenma Air Station to Henoko in Nago,” he said. Referring to opposition to the FRF-Henoko and the deployment by the Marines of 24 Osprey helicopters to the prefecture, Onaga said, “In the 68 years since the end of WWII, there has not been another time when the hearts of the Okinawan people were united in such a nonpartisan manner.”
PRESSURE ON NAKAIMA: As of last week, Governor Nakaima, aware of the mood in Okinawa and that his legacy is at stake, remained noncommittal to Tokyo. He visited with Abe on December 17, and again a few days later, and submitted a list of five demands: closure of MCAS Futenma within five years; return of Marine Camp Kinser within 7 years; revision of the Status of Forces Agreement; redeployment out of Okinawa of 12 of 24 Osprey now in the prefecture; funding in FY14 for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, and budget commitments for the 2nd runway at Naha Airport, construction of a new rail system in the prefecture, and for reclamation of lands to be returned by the US Marines.
Upon hearing the demands, Tokyo knew it had a problem. Nakaima was serious, especially about the sped-up timetable for closure of Futenma, which is now set for 2023 “or later.” The problem: The US is likely to insist that Futenma remain open until the Henoko replacement is fully operational. Sources report that critical design elements of the envisioned Henoko facility are not even complete, so there exists no firm timetable for when the facility can be used. The Kantei is now talking of extraordinary measures, such as round-the-clock work schedules, to complete the project. But it is hard to find anyone who thinks the five-year timetable is realistic.
The gap between that reality and the expected promises from the government will likely influence the upcoming Nago City election.
As of now, the conservative camp is bogged down with two candidates, the LDP-backed Suematsu, and the former mayor, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro. Suematsu, aware of the sentiments throughout Okinawa, has deliberately avoided public statements about the FRF plan. But few doubt he favors construction of the Henoko replacement facility.
Shimabukuro, by contrast, is an ardent supporter of the project, and says he is running so as to make the pro-base and anti-base options clear. But Shimabukuro is under intense pressure from the LDP to drop out of the race, so that the pro-base vote does not split to the advantage of Inamine.
An interesting twist is that the Buddhist Komei party, which is allied with the LDP at the national level, is not backing Suematsu, as the party opposes the FRF plan.
DANGERS AND OPPORTUNITIES: The big danger for Japan and the US is that the ham-fisted pressure applied on Okinawa will backfire, resulting in built-up frustrations in the prefecture being directed against the US Air Force’s Kadena air base. Together with the huge naval base at Yokosuka, which is home port to the USS George Washington carrier group, Kadena is one of the twin pillars of US strategic deterrence in East Asia.
By contrast, the MCAS Futenma is convenient for training and Marine down time, but has no strategic function. Only decades of inter-service rivalries has prevented the functions at Futenma from being integrated into Kadena.
Ironically, a sped-up timetable for completion of the second runway at Naha Airport, which the Abe cabinet has pledged to Nakaima, could provide a way out of the FRF dilemma. Completion of the second Naha runway by 2019, as now planned, would give the Marines enough time to build a relatively small heliport inside Marine Camp Schwab or Hansen for the 24 Osprey now at Futenma, and for the Marines to negotiate access to the second Naha runway in case of emergency, thus eliminating the need for the envisioned facility at Henoko. The Marines would not have a cherished independent runway of their own, but they have never given a satisfactory answer as to why then need one.
Alas, no one with any influence in Washington or Tokyo is currently thinking along those lines.