Sunday, January 17, 2010

Course unclear for Japan-U.S. alliance

Course unclear for Japan-U.S. alliance. By Takehiko Kajita
Japan Today, Jan 17, 2010

TOKYO — Despite last week’s accord between Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to further deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance, it is unclear what will actually be achieved in light of a disagreement over a U.S. military air base that has strained bilateral relations.

Both the top Japanese and U.S. diplomats spoke highly of the bilateral alliance, saying it has underpinned security in the Asia-Pacific region for the past 50 years.

They formally agreed to launch talks to further deepen the alliance, with foreign and defense ministers from the two nations holding a meeting in the first half of this year for a midterm review and seeking a final conclusion in November.

Noting that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the current bilateral security arrangements, Clinton said, ‘‘It is an opportunity to mark the progress we have achieved together for our people and for the people of the region and the world.’‘

Okada said he hopes the upcoming talks will result in a new document replacing the 1996 Japan-U.S. security declaration, which expanded the scope of the bilateral alliance from one configured for the Cold War era to one encompassing the entire Asia-Pacific region.

But questions arise on whether the project will proceed as hoped for, in light of the tension spawned by the bickering over where the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture should be relocated.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan has delayed the decision on the relocation issue until May, indicating that Tokyo could renege on the previously agreed plan to transfer Futenma’s helicopter functions to another site in Okinawa by 2014.

There is no guarantee, however, that the Tokyo government and the ruling coalition can reach a decision by then because the Social Democratic Party, a minor coalition partner, insists that the air base facility be moved off the southernmost island prefecture entirely.

Hatoyama appears determined to keep the three-way coalition intact, which also includes the People’s New Party, another small party, as the DPJ lacks a majority in the House of Councillors even though it is an overwhelmingly dominant force in the more powerful House of Representatives.

Another reason for doubts is Okinawa’s lingering resentment about what its residents see as an unfair burden in maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance. Okinawa hosts about half the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan.

While the city of Nago has offered to be home to the facility to Futenma, a mayoral election there on Jan 24 could turn the tide. In the election, an incumbent who accepts the relocation plan under a 2006 bilateral deal will face off with a contender who is opposed to it.

Should the central government decide to go ahead with the Nago plan by the election, it would face difficulties in carrying it out because environmental assessment procedures at the planned transfer site in a coastal area will likely be disturbed by local protests.

‘‘I’m afraid the net result of what the Hatoyama government is doing would be that the Futenma base will remain put permanently,’’ said a Japanese government official who requested anonymity.

Apart from the Futenma dispute, there is another source of doubt about the alliance talks—why it is necessary at this point and in which direction Japan wants to navigate them.

The Hatoyama government has pledged to deal with the United States on a more ‘‘equal’’ basis, while emphasizing closer relations with China.

After the talks with Clinton, Okada was vague about what will be among major elements to be considered to strengthen the alliance. He said security environments in East Asia, including China’s moves, should be scrutinized, but admitted it is difficult to predict how the talks will evolve.

Asked about his own vision for a future alliance with the United States, he said only, ‘‘It may be better for you to pose the question to the prime minister.’’