Professor Mike Mochizuki holds the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He co-directs the "Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific" research and policy project of the Sigur Center. Previously, he was a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was also Co-Director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at RAND and has taught at the University of Southern California and Yale University. This interview was conducted jointly for Toyo Keizai On-Line and Dispatch Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the significance of the recently-announced agreement between Washington and Tokyo concerning the return of some territory in Okinawa?
MOCHIZUKI: This is a last-ditch effort by the US and Japanese governments to alter base politics in Okinawa so that the Futenma Replacement Facility can be constructed at Henoko Bay.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is this a genuine breakthrough on the issue?
MOCHIZUKI: If by “genuine breakthrough,” you mean that the agreement will succeed in fundamentally altering current political dynamics in Okinawa, I would say it is not a breakthrough. Moreover, the agreement does not entail a significant acceleration in the timetable for returning U.S. facilities south of Kadena Air Force Base, which has been sought by Okinawans.
DISPATCH JAPAN: It seems that Tokyo is trying to “buy off” Okinawa. Can that tactic work anymore?
MOCHIZUKI: Okinawa of course welcomes the financial aid from the central government in order to promote development. But this aid does not necessarily translate into local willingness to accept a new Marine Air Station within the prefecture.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So much of the new agreement depends on construction of replacement facilities, which has been one reason for the impasse of many years. So where is the “breakthrough?”
MOCHIZUKI: There is no substantive breakthrough. But I think that by recommitting themselves to the return of Futenma as well as the return of facilities south of Kadena, the U.S. and Japanese governments hope to turn around public opinion in Okinawa. After the resignation of Prime Minister Hatoyama, the political executives of every city, town, and village of Okinawa –whether conservative or progressive-- have declared their opposition to the Henoko FRF plan. So what the Abe government would like to do is at least win the support of conservatives in Okinawa for the current Futenma relocation plan. But when Okinawans read the fine print of the agreement and consider the conditions and the probable schedule for the return of U.S. military facilities, there is not much to cheer about.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you see any change in the attitude of Governor Nakaima? There are top-level MOD officials who believe that since the governor is an LDP member, he will eventually alter his opposition to the Henoko plan.
MOCHIZUKI: I think Governor Nakaima wants to maintain a good rapport with the Abe government, and he is wisely refraining from rejecting central government initiatives out of hand. But I don’t think this means that he is now prepared to accept the Henoko plan. He is being cautious, and he has stated that he needs to find out how local communities that will be affected by the latest agreement feel.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The MOD and the Kantei seem to think they can out-maneuver Mayor Inamine by somehow winning the support of a majority of assembly members. Do you see that as feasible?
MOCHIZUKI: Winning over the majority of the Nago City Assembly is an ambitious goal for the MOD and Kantei. But what is key is whether or not Mayor Inamine, who has vehemently opposed the Henoko plan, wins re-election in 2014.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there a different attitude toward the Henoko project between the local Henoko residents vs. the other sections of the prefecture? The OPG staff seems to think that the Henoko community favors the project, but all other sections of Okinawa remain opposed.
MOCHIZUKI: Because there has been so much money flowing into the communities closest to Henoko Bay, it is not surprising that these communities tend to favor the FRF project. But those sections of Nago City away from Henoko Bay tend to be opposed. And public opposition to the Henoko plan remains pretty robust in the rest of Okinawa Prefecture.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How would you characterize the Abe government’s approach toward Okinawa? Tokyo seems intent on using the period of review of the landfill application to win over a significant portion of Okinawa sentiment that, up to now, has been opposed.
MOCHIZUKI: Through both financial aid and the promise of future closures of U.S. military facilities in attractive areas for development, the Abe government hopes to win over the hearts and minds of conservative Okinawans who are pro-development and more supportive of the security alliance with the United States. Unfortunately, the latest agreement tends to take a piecemeal approach so the effect on these Okinawans is unlikely to be dramatic.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Has the tension with North Korea had any significant impact on how the long-standing stalemate for FRF? (Putting pressure on Okinawa to agree to Henoko…)
MOCHIZUKI: Tensions with North Korea as well as tensions with China over the Senkakus may have increased support for the US-Japan alliance among some Okinawans. But this does not necessarily mean that they will now embrace the Henoko plan. Rather many Okinawans are probably asking that if US military forces are so important for Japanese security, why don’t other prefectures offer to host those forces?
DISPATCH JAPAN: According to the new agreement, Futenma would remain open for at least another 9 years (2022). Is it wise to keep such a controversial facility open for such a long time?
MOCHIZUKI: The target date of 2022 is probably frustrating and depressing for Okinawans. Remember that under the original 1996 agreement, the goal was to have Futenma returned between 2001 and 2003. 2022 would be at least 19 years after the target date. That’s a whole generation. Moreover, the April 2013 agreement does not declare Futenma will be returned in 2022 at the latest. The document instead states “2022 or later.” So there is a strong possibility that the 2022 target year will not be met.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The plan to relocate a large number of US Marines to Guam seems to be in question, as construction of new facilities on Guam is caught up in cost-overruns, underestimation of costs, questions in Congress, and now the sequestration. How can the overall base realignment move forward if the US can’t deliver on the Guam side of the deal?
MOCHIZUKI: That’s a good question. Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings and I, however, have an answer to that. We propose relocating these Marines back to bases on the continental United States. If we pre-positioned equipment in Japan and elsewhere in the region, we can easily and rapidly fly Marines back into the region during a contingency. Moreover, Marines can maintain a regular regional presence through rotational deployments.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is the US Marine presence on Okinawa really of strategic importance, or is the real motivation more mundane bureaucratic considerations?
MOCHIZUKI: If Okinawa were willing to host 20,000 Marines permanently, I would acknowledge that there may be strategic benefits of such a presence. But that is not the case. Therefore, we have to recognize the political strain that such a Marine presence poses on the alliance. Moreover, having Futenma Marine Air Station located in a crowded urban area increases the probability of a tragic accident.If such a tragedy were to occur, this would have a devastating effect on the alliance. It is strategically important to maintain support in Okinawa for hosting more vital facilities like Kadena Air Force base. I am not arguing that all the Marines should leave Okinawa. But I believe that we can dramatically reduce the Marine presence on Okinawa without undermining the US security role in the Asia-Pacific.