Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hatoyama's next decision: Go now or in July

It's cost him a the respect of two nations and a coalition ally, and it looks likely the Futenma flap will cost him his job.

After months of efforts in vain to find a spot to relocate Futenma Air Station anywhere but inside Okinawa, Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama has reluctantly concluded that something close to the original plan for a replacement facility at Henoko in Nago City is the only practical solution, and an agreement with the US is now in the works.

Opting to revisit the original plan to put relocate Futenma to the Camp Schwab vicinity at Henoko came after the Hatoyama administration's attempts to obtain the cooperation of new candidate sites for relocation – such as Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture--failed one after another, mainly due to opposition from local governments and residents. Swallowing his pride, the Prime Minister even journeyed to Okinawa over the weekend to personally apologize – with TV cameras rolling – to Governor Nakaima for reneging on his campaign promise to remove Futenma from Okinawan soil. The governor was predictably angry and uncooperative, and public outcries of “betrayal” from Okinawans dominated news coverage of the event.

Though he made the only decision he felt possible, Hatoyama is being attacked for it by even the liberal press. The usually Democratic Party of Japan-friendlyAsahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun, severely faulted him in editorials for his decision to keep Futenma inside Okinawa, though neither paper offered any other solution. The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, usually harsh toward the DPJ government on this issue, soundly scolded Hatoyama in its editorial for the long delay, but supported his decision to opt for the alliance over local interests.

The reaction of the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party was disappointing. Instead of applauding a decision on Futenma for a plan that they had favored, the LDP opportunistically used the occasion to blast Hatoyama for callous treatment of Okinawan sensitivities. The former ruling party is even threatening to file a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister.

Okinawa may have their issues with a DPJ government that promised change but delivered the opposite, but the prefecture from the start has rejected any pragmatic resolution. The governor previously supported the Henoko plan negotiated and approved by his successor in 2006. Now, he has joined the crowd calling for Futenma’s immediate closure and removal from Okinawa.

The Hatoyama government is to blame for raising false hopes, and then wasting everyone’s time while it scurried around looking for relocation sites outside of Okinawa. It also needlessly tried US patience by reneging on the old agreement only to come up in the end months later with a resolution that is almost the same as before. Such a decision arguably could have been made last December. Of course, at that time, Hatoyama was besieged by the Social Democratic Party, which wanted the base moved to Guam and threatened to bolt the ruling coalition if he made a decision that kept Futenma in Okinawa. The SDP is no longer needed in the coalition now, the budget and other major legislation having been passed. The DPJ can find other, more cooperative coalition partners among the small parties after the July election.

Still, even at this late point, Prime Minister Hatoyama should be praised for finally displaying leadership and making a pragmatic decision and then swallowing his pride to apologize face to face to the Okinawa governor. Yes, it was probably the only choice he could have made under the circumstances; the only other alternative would have been to ask the US to send all the Marines home so he could close the base.

The Prime Minister cited the need to maintain “military deterrence” as his chief reason for not siding with Okinawa on this issue. He probably knew that was the priority all along. But it is tempting to speculate that the latest round of scary saber rattling by North Korea, torpedoing a South Korean patrol boat and killing 46 sailors, may have added impetus to Hatoyama’s resolve to side with the alliance in resolving the Futenma issue.

The Alliance may have suffered a bit of damage by this affair but that will heal. The real collateral damage is a major loss of trust in Okinawa for a party that was seen by many as the prefecture’s white knight on US base issues. Now, Futenma may be more than just a symbol of the base problem. It may in effect have become a rallying cry for a nascent political movement in Okinawa that not only rejects a pragmatic solution for the long-delayed reversion -- in effect keeping the citizens of Ginowan City near the base in perpetual limbo -- it also may seek the long-term goal of removing the US military presence from the island prefecture. Such goals and activities are not new in the history of base negotiations in Okinawa, but this inchoate movement, fueled by the DPJ government’s inept handling of the issue and anger at its broken promises, could escalate

The LDP’s tack in the past was to offer economic incentives to placate Okinawa whenever the base problem heated up, essentially capping strong anti-base movements. But the DPJ has been loathe to use such devices. Moreover, the locals were never given a say, reading about most proposals and now the final decision in the newspapers, which has only added more fuel to the fires of outrage. If the new relocation plan is ever to have a chance of being implemented, the ruling party may now have no choice but to belatedly enter the realm so masterly managed by the LDP in the past and offer lavish economic measures.

As for Prime Minister Hatoyama’s political fate, his popularity has already plummeted to 20% or below in the polls, and his party’s support ratings are even below the LDP’s in some surveys. Hatoyama’s controversial decision is not likely to endear him to a public that has already given up on his administration. Having made the decision, and assuming that a US-Japan agreement is in its final stage, the Prime Minister may indeed decide that the situation has become untenable and resign to let a fresh face take the party into the general election in July.

It may come down to a question of whether to resign before the election to take responsibility for breaking his promise to Okinawa, or having to resign after it to take responsibility for a poor showing for his party. In either case, Hatoyama gets no respect for a decision he promised and delivered in May.

Dr William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

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