Sunday, January 24, 2010

US-Japan alliance: The rethink starts here

Anyone who thought the Futenma question was about to be answered by Tokyo and Washington didn't factor in Nago.

Residents of the Okinawan city elected an anti-base mayor on Sunday, Susumu Inamine. The Democratic Party of Japan-backed challenger had campaigned against any expansion of US military presence in the area, specifically Henoko Bay.

Nago is where Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2006 to move the Futenma US Marine airfield - one of the Corps' largest facilities in the Pacific - to a less crowded part of the southern Japanese island. The deal was part of a broader realignment of US troops in Asia.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called the victory a "manifestation of the popular will." Noting that a government committee was "energetically" studying the relocation issue, he said: "We have said the state will responsibly reach a conclusion on this issue by the end of May by conducting a zero-base review. We will implement it without fail."

The Obama Administration has been adamant that the original agreement remains in place. Although officials in Washington have begun to counsel patience and understanding, they all remain committed to the transfer of Futenma operations to Henoko. At a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Hawaii on January 12th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "Our two governments drew up the realignment roadmap with these dual goals in mind, and we look to our Japanese allies and friends to follow through on their commitments, including on Futenma."

Okada avoided direct comment, but said: "We must make the Japan-US alliance sustainable for the next 30 or 50 years, and further deepen this alliance. And we would like to make efforts to that end mutually."

"Sustainable" is a word that is now popping up in all discussions about the alliance, on both sides of the Pacific. On Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell for East Asian and Pacific Affairs testified to Congress that, "our alliance with Japan is a cornerstone of our strategic engagement in Asia. The May 2006 agreement on defense transformation and realignment will enhance deterrence while creating a more sustainable military presence in the region."

Although this interpretation of sustainable might not be the same as understood by Okada - it implies that Japan should stick to its Henoko commitment - it is significant that the phrase is being used.

January 19th was the 50th anniversary of the signing Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan. A joint statement was issued highlighting that the US-Japan alliance can "adapt to the evolving environment of the 21st century, learning from the challenges the alliance has faced in the past. For this purpose, the ministers will intensify the dialogue which is underway to further promote and deepen security cooperation in wide-ranging areas."

The White House issued a brief statement of encouragement for this "enduring partnership." At a press briefing, Campbell commended the "anniversary of the US-Japan security alliance, security partnership" and said "It’s no exaggeration to say that it has been the cornerstone and the foundation of everything that we’ve managed to accomplish over the course of the last few generations in Asia."

The 16th annual Japan-US Security Seminar held January 15-16, was a good review of conventional wisdom on the US-Japan alliance. The event’s website provides a video clip of a panel discussion reviewing current thinking. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage advises his colleagues "to get back up on the bicycle and ride" after they had the wind knocked out of them by the election of the DPJ. There is still a role for them to advise the new government.

A loose coalition of organizations and interests appears to be behind a new YouTube Channel seeking a greater dialogue on the US military presence on Okinawa. This site, 2010 Okinawa, hosts some of the discussion from the above Seminar as well as interviews with Okinawan citizens and activists. It is expanding daily to include commentary from all sides of the debate.

Image from here.

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