Okinawa’s Election: A Glimmer Of Hope For The U.S.-Japan Alliance

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By Kent Mullen – On November 28th, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima of Okinawa, the Japanese prefecture at the center of a U.S. base relocation controversy, was narrowly reelected in a contest against a candidate who strongly opposes the local U.S. military presence. Although many challenges remain, Nakaima’s reelection gives Washington and Tokyo a glimmer of hope for finally overcoming the dispute that has caused considerable damage to the bilateral relationship. This is definitely welcome news; developments such as the apparent shift in Chinese maritime strategy and unprecedented tensions on the Korean peninsula have reminded policy makers on both sides of the Pacific of the continued value of the partnership. The election results give the two countries an important opportunity to repair some of the damage of the past year and to reinvigorate the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

The base relocation controversy involves a 2006 agreement between the U.S. and Japan to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa from the center of a major city to Henoko, a less densely populated area on the island. This compromise was settled on after the Japanese government under the leadership of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) agreed with American officials that despite local discontent with the major U.S. military presence, removing the base from the island completely was not strategically viable. The trouble began during the 2009 general election when former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama-then leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-made a campaign promise to move the unpopular base “at least outside” Okinawa. This created a misled sense of hope among the local population, and when political realities forced Hatoyama and the DPJ to make an agreement in May that was substantively identical to the 2006 agreement, massive public demonstrations against the relocation erupted in Okinawa. Hatoyama resigned in June in an attempt to reverse the considerable damage the controversy caused the DPJ in time for the July upper house election, and his successor, current Prime Minister Naoto Kan (DPJ), has since reaffirmed Tokyo’s support for relocation of MCAS Futenma to Henoko.

The DPJ’s newfound support for the agreement does not mean there are no longer challenges facing the alliance. Prime Minister Kan still has the unenviable task of devising a way to get Okinawa to swallow the move of MCAS Futenma despite continued overwhelming local resistance, plummeting domestic approval ratings and political deadlock. This comes at a time when Japan is being buffeted by several regional security challenges, such as Chinese encroachment on the Senkaku Islands, Russian President Medvedev’s visit to disputed islands in the Northern Territories and North Korea’s revelation of a uranium processing facility and subsequent shelling of South Korean territory.

The U.S., too, faces multiple challenges in the region, all of which have been exacerbated by the loss of confidence in the alliance caused by Tokyo’s handling of the Futenma controversy and lingering doubts about the DPJ’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan relationship. Despite these doubts, policy makers in Washington must recognize that Japan is still an important ally and that the strength of the alliance is central to maintaining stability in East Asia. It is crucial for both Tokyo and Washington to work together to restore the credibility and strength of the alliance, and to do so, they must first overcome the seemingly intractable challenge posed by this basing issue.

Luckily, Nakaima’s reelection gives Prime Minister Kan and the U.S. some breathing room. Nakaima was initially in favor of the 2006 agreement and only reversed his position when Hatoyama’s election pledge made it a political necessity. If given enough time and the right political cover, he may be able to return to that position. Ironically, Kan has an opportunity to take advantage of the security challenges mentioned above to help convince Nakaima that moving forward with the 2006 agreement is best for the security of country. The U.S. could do its part by being flexible on reopening negotiations regarding the base, which may seem unpalatable especially since the last negotiations took fifteen years. However, the negotiations would be much easier since both sides have recognized there is no alternative to the location of the base, and compromising on other less important details such as the number of runways and hours of operation will give Nakaima a chance to claim some sort of victory for the people of Okinawa.

More importantly, though, it is time for the two countries to demonstrate that this issue does not dictate the health of the alliance. To do so, they must begin to engage in discussions involving more substantial issues such as the future structure and purpose of the alliance. This will not only allow the two sides to work out a way to continue to keep the alliance credible and strong going forward, it will also give Japanese leaders the opportunity to better inform the Japanese public of the continued need for U.S. military presence. This important step has been long ignored by Tokyo, which has led to a perception gap regarding what the alliance does and why it is important. For its part, the U.S. will need to remain patient while Japan deals with the challenging domestic political situation, and should also come up with a clear plan for what it wants from Japan in the next several years.

It seems silly to some that the entire health of the U.S.-Japan alliance is viewed through the context of the Futenma issue, and indeed, the base is just one small facet of a hugely important and complex security arrangement. The controversy has transcended the actual base, however, and threatens to delegitimize and destabilize the fifty-year-old relationship that is largely responsible for the peace and stability of the region. Nakaima’s victory gives the two sides an opportunity to finally deal with the issue, but several obstacles to getting the alliance on a more sustainable path remain. If both sides fail to overcome these obstacles, the ability of the alliance to maintain stability in the region will be greatly compromised.


Photo Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen is welcomed to Tokyo by Gen. Ryoichi Oriki, chief of staff of the Joint Staff Office, October 2009. (U.S. Navy photo #091023-N-0696M-250), McNeely.


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