Sunday, November 01, 2009

DPJ Crosses Red Line with Support for Anti-Helicopter Base Candidate

I’ve believed, like many people here, that if only Prime Minister firmed up and took the heat for sticking with the 2006 agreement to move the U.S. Marine helicopters on Futenma Base to a base to be built offshore of Camp Schwab on the coral seas of the remotest part of Nago City, everyone except the pacifist SDP would fall into line, the bulk of the Marine forces at Futenma could be relocated to Guam, and Futenma would revert to Japan to be used for non-military purposes. After all, the DPJ manifesto and the subsequent DPJ-SDP-PNP policy pact had only carried a vague reference to revisiting the U.S. troop realignment, and even the reprisal in the policy pact—hammered out on the DPJ side by Katsuya Okada—had been a grudging concession to the SDP. The DPJ would—did—have more than enough on the domestic agenda without U.S. relations becoming an unwelcome distraction. The projected landfill might be something of an eyesore, but few people would notice, as Henoko, the part of Nago where Camp Schwab now resides, is one of the most sparsely populated areas in all of Okinawa. More significantly, the helicopter base would bring welcome Tokyo money. Perhaps that is why Nago has elected three pro-base mayors—albeit professing great reluctance and a powerful sense of public duty—in a row. Thus, I had believed Foreign Minister Okada’s most recent brainstorm to relocate the helicopters to Kadena Air Base to be no more than a strawman, to be knocked down by the U.S. side—which the Obama administration promptly proceeded to do at all levels from the Defense Secretary on down—and by the Okinawans themselves—which the good assemblymen of the Kadena township immediately proceeded to do, in a unanimous vote that rejected the idea and, for good measure, called for easing the burden on their own shoulders.

So there the matter would end, and the DPJ administration would have to bow to the inevitable. But what do I know? For Okada has continued to pursue the Kadena option as his “personal proposal,” and at least one news report claims that a senior member of the ruling coalition (phrasing that indicates that the person is not a member of the Hatoyama administration) has sounded out the locals with a scrap-and-build plan to move 28 out of the 48 U.S. F-15s stationed on Kadena Base. I am sure that the Obama administration will be very surprised, and not in a nice way, if the Hatoyama administration ever puts this on the negotiating table. I cannot believe that the Hatoyama would put placating the DPJ (and its own most radical, ex-Socialist elements) ahead of Japan and the United States’ individual and joint security concerns, but, as Okada himself admits, there’s no way of moving the helicopters to Kadena if it increases the net burden. Besides, the U.S. side has made it clear that air traffic control requirements preclude the location of the helicopter fleet conjointly with conventional aircraft on the existing space in Kadena.

So is Okada, and by extension Hatoyama, continuing to play the Kadena card as a show of exhausting all possible avenues? Perhaps. But in the meantime, the locals are getting restless. The good assemblymen of Nago have become irritated at the dithering and are threatening to rescind their offer to host the helicopters. An even more ominous turn in local politics, has the DPJ reportedly deciding to back an anti-helicopter base candidate against the pro-base incumbent in the January mayoral election. This, to me, effectively precludes the possibility of the Hatoyama administration giving the nod to Nago as the site within the year—for good, if the DPJ-backed anti-base candidate wins,

What will the fallout of the birth of an anti-base administration in Nago be like? In the near future, nothing—on the ground at least. The relocation of the U.S. troops from Futenma grinds to a stop, and everything is frozen in situ. But frustration and mistrust will build up among everyone involved—the people of Futenma, the Obama administration, the U.S. military, the Japanese national security establishment—with longer-term, negative consequences all around.


Ross said...

Does the anti-base candidate have any chance of winning? If not, perhaps the election's a good cue that adequate local support for the plan exists, enabling the DPJ to push base relocation forward after January.

Anonymous said...

I recently filmed on the Henoko beach, the proposed relocation site for the Futenma Air Station. The emerald translucent waters are sheltered by one of the last remaining coral reefs protecting Okinawa from typhoons. It is also the natural habitat of the dugong, an gentle creature now an endangered species.
You can see for yourself what is at stake in Okinawa:

Jun Okumura said...

Ross: I have no idea. Now for the long answer: In the 2006 election, the pro-base, LDP-Komeito candidate, beat the anti-base candidate, who received the support of the DPJ, SDP, JCP, the Okinawa Social Mass (sic) Party and the Liberal League, 16,764 votes to 11,029. A third, also anti-base, candidate who had been expelled from the JCP polled 4,354 votes. This time around, given the anti-LDP sentiments coursing through national politics, I’m tempted to say that the anti-base candidate supported by DPJ et al will win—if there is no other significant anti-base candidate to split the anti-base vote. However, I know next to nothing about Okinawa politics. Moreover, reports tell us that the there is another potential candidate whom the JCP may support. So I have no idea. But you’re right, if the pro-base incumbent wins, the DPJ can claim that the people of Nago and Okinawa have spoken, and move on. But that’s a low-risk, low-return play.

Linda: It’s a choice that no one wants to make. One thing though: A new, offshore landfill arguably affords more protection, I would think, though this is not an argument that pro-base forces would want to push.

PaxAmericana said...

Why are the "good assemblymen" of Nago getting irritated or restless? Does their position become vulnerable by delays? Where does local sentiment fall?

By the way, I don't think you've mentioned Hatoyama's call for a broader review of defense matters. And one more issue for those of us who don't understand the Japanese national security establishment is how much influence can the Hatoyama regime bring to change their focus. I assume this establishment would have fairly large differences of opinion with large swathes of the DPJ.

Jun Okumura said...

PaxAmericana: The media reports that I’ve seen do not go into the logic behind the connection between waffling in Tokyo and wavering support in Nago, but I imagine that it’s something like the following:

The accepted history is that pro-base forces in Nago never lobbied the Tokyo (or Okinaw) government for the helicopter base. It was the other way around, and they only reluctantly accepted it for the greater good (on the condition that the Nagoites would be sufficiently compensated for their noble sacrifice). Thus, if Tokyo holds out (false?) hopes of another location, then the entire premise of their acceptance is undermined. Besides, if the whole thing falls through, the pro-base forces don’t want to be left holding an empty bag—and more the Hatoyama administration waffles, the more suspicion grows.

That’s the way I see it.

The problem with a “review”—which, by the way, has been in plain view for some time in the DPJ manifesto—is that Hatoyama’s words seem tailored to the audience or interlocutor of the moment, leaving people unsure where he—as the single most influential DPJ figure on this matter—is coming from. Does he see the current US presence in the Asia Pacific as essential, both directly and indirectly, to Japanese interests? Does he see the U.S. nuclear umbrella as essential to Japan’s national security? And does Okada share Hatoyama’s views on these points? If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then the Obama administration in principle has nothing to worry about; a review would be the most natural of events at the beginning of a new regime in Japan. Some of requests/demands coming from the Japanese side may not be to the liking of the U.S. national security establishment, but the two sides would be working within agreed boundaries. Hatoyama’s “trapped between two hegemons and punting for an East Asia Community” essay and subsequent statements sow doubts in the minds of the other side, and Okada has not been very helpful in this respect either.

PaxAmericana said...

Thanks for your take on that. It seems to me that Japan has a very tough decision to finesse as the inevitable decline of the US and rise of China puts Japan in the position of choosing between economics, with China, or security, with the US.

Jun Okumura said...

Paxy: It’s made even more difficult by the fact that the United States will remain the second most important trading partner whose economic prospects look much brighter than China’s 20 years down the line—which means, I think, that it’s not really an either-or-question for the Japanese government, no more than it was for the People’s Republic of China in the 50s and 60s.