Japan Wants to Change Agreement on Relocating U.S. Marine Base Ahead of Obama’s Upcoming Visit

By Patrick Goodenough | October 15, 2009 | 4:54 AM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in New York on September 21, 2009. (State Dept photo by Michael Gross)

(CNSNews.com) – Eight months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an agreement in Tokyo mapping out the realignment of U.S. troops in Japan, plans by the country’s new left-leaning government to change it up are causing friction ahead of President Obama’s visit next month.
The deal signed by Clinton and her then-Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone on February 17 provides for some 8,000 U.S. Marines and 9,000 dependents to move from Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, to Guam, the U.S. territory some 1,400 miles to the east.
The two sides also agreed that the U.S. Marines air station known as Futenma will be moved from its current location – a densely-populated area of Okinawa – to a quieter part of the island, as part of an effort to reduce the impact of military bases on local communities. The two elements are directly linked: the move to Guam cannot take place until the “Futenma replacement facility” is in place.
More than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan currently are on Okinawa, and their presence there has long drawn opposition from some quarters – for safety, environmental and ideological reasons.
The painstakingly negotiated agreement arose from a bilateral pact drawn up between the Bush administration and the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government in 2006, part of a global realignment of U.S. force deployment aimed at making them more streamlined and more effective to face future challenges.
But since the LDP defeat in elections last August and formation of a new government headed by the liberal Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) – a government that says it wants a more “equal” alliance with the U.S. – the plan is threatening to unravel.
Prodded by leftist coalition partners, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants the air station moved not just from one part of the Okinawa prefecture to another, but off the island. Some want it out of Japan altogether.
The Hatoyama government has launched a review of how the two governments reached the 2006 accord.
As preparations are made for Obama’s first visit to Japan on November 12-13, American and Japanese officials have been holding talks on the Okinawa issue.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left; and Brig. Gen. John A. Toolan, deputy commander of Headquarters United States Forces Japan, right; are briefed by Lt. Col. Robert R. Piatt, project management officer of the Futenma Relocation Facilty, on Okinawa on July 22, 2009. (USMC photo by Sgt. Christine M. Wilcox)

U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, visiting Japan on Monday, voiced the hope that “real progress” on the issue would be made before the presidential visit.
But Japan’s defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, told a press conference the following day it was unlikely any agreement would be reached by then.
The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun in an editorial Thursday scolded the new government for wasting time on trying to reopen an already agreed deal.
“Japan and the United States now have a mountain of issues to tackle together, including North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, countermeasures against international terrorism and China’s growing military power,” it said.
“It is not productive to expend a lot of energy on discussing the transfer of the air station, which would not be on the agenda unless the Japanese side saw it as a problem.”
‘No room for revision’
When Hatoyama and his newly-installed foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, visited New York for the U. N. General Assembly session last month, Okada broached the subject during talks with Clinton.
Briefing media after the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley said he had told Okada that the U.S. was happy to answer the new government’s questions about the existing Okinawa plan.
Asked whether Clinton had argued for the importance of sticking to the plan and keeping Marines on Okinawa, Crowley replied, “All I can say is that she expressed the view that we would be open to further discussions on this issue.”
Back in February, Clinton unequivocally rejected the idea that a future Japanese government may want to revisit the agreement.
In an interview with a Japanese newspaper on the day of the signing, she was asked about the likelihood that a DPJ government would come in and insist on amending it.
“I think a responsible nation follows the agreements that have been entered into,” she said. “And the agreement that I signed today with Foreign Minister Nakasone is one between our two nations, regardless of who’s in power.”
Clinton noted that it had been negotiated by the previous Republican administration and was being implemented by the current Democratic one – “and I would expect Japan to do the same.”
“So there’s no room to amend or revise this?” she was asked.
“No, it’s an agreement that should be implemented.”
‘US must regain respect for international cooperation’
The other main shift in Japanese security policy post-election is Tokyo’s plan not to extend an Indian Ocean refueling mission in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan. The law authorizing the mission, which sees Japanese vessels refuel U.S. and other coalition warships, is due to expire in January.
The DPJ in opposition long opposed the operation, which the former government viewed as part of Japan’s contribution to the international counter-terrorism effort focused on Afghanistan-Pakistan after 9/11.
Last weekend, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the visiting Japanese foreign minister that he hoped Japan would continue the mission. But Okada replied that Japan was considering alternative actions once the mission expires.
Hatoyama in the U.S. last month mentioned “agricultural or vocational training” as possible future Japanese contributions in Afghanistan.
DPJ’s ideological positions were spelled out in a document drawn up by Okada – now foreign minister, then DPJ leader – in 2005.
“Our vision also contains an orderly international community in which the United States has regained its respect for international cooperation, and in which a collective security framework wherein the use of military force takes place based on U.N. Security Council resolutions is the norm,” it said.
Okada complained about the emergence in the U.S. of “a school of thought that does not hesitate to sanction unilateral action and preemptive attacks when necessary.”
Under a DPJ government, the document said, the deployment of Japanese forces abroad would, in principle, only occur “under U.N. auspices.”
Obama’s visit to Japan next month is part of his first Asian trip as president. He will also travel to China, South Korea and Singapore.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow