November 14, 2009
Obama, in Japan, Says U.S. Will Study Status of a Marine Base on Okinawa
TOKYO — President Obama, seeking to mend fences with Japan, America’s most important Asian ally, announced Friday that he would establish a high-level working group on the contentious issue of the continuing presence of a Marine base on Okinawa.
The decision, announced at a news conference with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama just hours after he touched down in Tokyo to begin his first presidential trip to Asia, appears to represent a concession by the Obama administration to at least consider Japan’s concerns about the base, which is unpopular on Okinawa and which the new Japanese government had promised to try to move off the island.
Less than a month ago, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seemed to shut the door on renegotiating a deal reached in 2006 to relocate the United States Marine air station in Futenma to a less populated part of Okinawa.
Mr. Obama was, in effect, making a political gift to Mr. Hatoyama: seeming to reopen a door Mr. Gates had shut, even though Japan policy experts indicated that the establishment of the working group was most likely only a face-saving way for the new prime minister to show the Japanese public that he was keeping a campaign promise.
Mr. Obama’s visit comes at a time when relationships between the two allies have hit their lowest point in years and Mr. Hatoyama searches for a more “equal partnership.” On Friday, both leaders emphasized the importance of the relationship, and stressed that the two sides were seeing eye to eye.
Standing beside Mr. Obama at the Japanese equivalent of the White House, the Kantei, Mr. Hatoyama said, “We’ve come to call each other Barack and Yukio, and gotten quite accustomed to calling each other by our names.”
White House officials said that the United States had agreed only to talks “on the implementation” of the 2006 Okinawa agreement, and said they did not expect to alter the larger shape of the agreement, which also calls for relocating about 8,000 Marines to Guam.
“It is a fact that we did campaign on this issue, and the Okinawans do have high expectations,” Mr. Hatoyama said, explaining why he was intent on reopening the subject.
The United States also appeared to give ground on the other security point of dispute, accepting Mr. Hatoyama’s pledge of $5 billion in aid to Afghanistan, which the prime minister linked to his government’s decision to end the Japanese Navy’s refueling mission near Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama said the promise “underscores Japan’s prominent role” in the international effort in Afghanistan.
Still, there have been ample signs that the half-century alliance may be entering a new phase. Recently, squabbles between the United States and Japan have focused mostly on trade disputes over luxury cars and semiconductors, while the security alliance between the two remained stable.
Now, the conflicts have shifted to security, more specifically, on the Marine bases on Okinawa, the southern island that is home to about two-thirds of the 37,000 shore-based United States military personnel in Japan. Okinawans have said that they shoulder a disproportionate burden, and simmering resentments erupted in 1995 after the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American servicemen.
In 2006 the United States agreed to rebase thousands of soldiers to Guam, and to move the Marine base at Futenma elsewhere on Okinawa. But Mr. Hatoyama campaigned for office on a pledge to move the airfield off Okinawa altogether.
Political analysts and the Japanese news media now speak of a communication gap opening between Washington and Tokyo, which has led to what they call excessive American concerns that Japan may try to alter the two nations’ postwar military alliance.
These analysts say that the two nations are actually much closer on bilateral issues than they realize, and that Japan cannot afford to alienate a protector upon whom it still relies for its security as it faces a fast-rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea. But they say relations have fallen into a vicious cycle in which Tokyo sends conflicting signals, and Washington makes matters worse by raising public pressure.
Yasunori Sone, a professor of political and policy analysis at Keio University in Tokyo, said of the Japanese leaders: “There are too many places where we don’t know what the new government really wants. Their public relations has been poor.”
At the same time, the experts also blame the Obama administration for overreacting to what they say is essentially language aimed at a domestic audience and for failing to see that Tokyo’s government has little stomach for big changes to the alliance.
Japanese officials, in Washington last month to prepare for Mr. Obama’s trip, asked their American counterparts and foreign policy experts to give the new Japanese government time to get its house in order.
The American frustration over the Hatoyama government’s refusal to back down from the campaign pledges on the Okinawa base came to a head when Mr. Gates visited Tokyo in October. Mr. Gates, known for speaking bluntly, pressed Mr. Hatoyama and Japanese military officials to keep their commitment on the military agreements.
“It’s time to move on,” Mr. Gates said, calling Japanese proposals to reopen the base issue “counterproductive.” Then, adding insult to injury in the eyes of Japanese commentators, Mr. Gates turned down invitations to attend a welcoming ceremony at the Defense Ministry and to dine with officials there.
Mr. Obama will try to make up for some of the ensuing upset. On his agenda Friday night: dinner with Mr. Hatoyama.