Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fukushima and the art of the impossible

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had no choice but to eject the head of the Social Democratic Party, Mizuho Fukushima, from the cabinet.

Her demand to scrap the base realignment agreement between the United States and Japan was untenable. What exactly does SDP want? The party says it wants to close the Marine base as soon as possible, but it rejects any pragmatic solution as to where it should be relocated.

The mantra chanted by the SDP about moving the entire base to Guam was predictably opposed strongly by the residents of that island, soon to receive another batch of 8,000 Marines plus dependents. Their attitude dooms the residents of Ginowan outside the base to wait indefinitely for Futenma to close.

What is so wrong with the 2006 roadmap agreement and its 2010 reiteration regarding the Futenma replacement facility? Okinawa had accepted the 2006 relocation plan until the DPJ offered pie in the sky in the last election. Since the current furor started last fall, the US has been depicted by the Japanese media as unilaterally demanding that the 2006 agreement be honored. The roadmap, which contains a large matrix of base realignment in Japan, was negotiated over two years time between the two governments.

It was not forced upon anyone but was compiled to the satisfaction of the Japanese side after every conceivable option was thoroughly vetted. The force structure that is articulated in it was seen by both governments as effective for dealing with the changing security environment in the region. Events in the region since then have proved the prescience of the negotiators.

The campaign by the SDP to split the helicopter component from the remaining combat troops in Okinawa made no military sense since the two elements must train together and respond together. If the Futenma helicopter unit is relocated far from the troops, there is no chance of doing either. The conclusion one must reach then is that the SDP’s strong opposition to a pragmatic solution, namely, the relocation of the heliport to a spot near Camp Schwab in the sparsely populated northern Okinawa is ideological. Those ideologically opposed to the move will never accept it, their goal being to eventually remove all US bases from the island. Environmentalists also have opposed the relocation to waters off Camp Schwab as destructive to the coral reef and the habitat of dugongs, an endangered species sometimes seen in the waters there. They have a point, but it is possible to construct a heliport that would be environmentally friendly to the reef and to the habitat of the dugongs.

On the plus side, honoring the 2006 roadmap agreement means 8,000 Marines go to Guam and several facilities south of Kadena Air Base are returned to Japan. Under the new agreement, training for the Marines in Okinawa will be shifted as much as possible to locations outside of Okinawa. On the down side, the helicopter function of Futenma adds to the burden of Nago City, which hosts Camp Schwab. But a new base is not being created, only an existing one is being expanded.

Some have argued that the Marines in Okinawa no longer have a role, combat or deterrence, and being strategically useless, they should be sent back to the US en masse. Such simplistic thinking disregards the facts, including the four-year process of the Defense Posture Review Initiative or DPRI, in which the U.S. and Japan painstakingly negotiated to realign and consolidate US bases in Japan and reached the mutual conclusion that leaving combat Marines and their helicopter support in Okinawa, while moving 8,000 other Marines to Guam, made strategic sense, while reducing the burden on the prefecture. The U.S. and Japan still agree in 2010 that the Marines have an important role to play as a main component in the bilateral security arrangements under any one of a number of scenarios.

The SDP quit the coalition saying its heart lies with the Okinawans and their cause. But the party’s defiance of Prime Minister Hatoyama also in effect denies the efficacy of the bilateral security arrangements of the alliance in meeting Japan’s defense needs and in maintaining deterrence in the region.

The SDP has proposed no economic plan to make Okinawa less dependent on the bases. It just wants the Marines to leave so that it can score an ideological victory. When push comes to shove, the DPJ remains the best choice to promote Okinawan interests at this moment. And fulfilling the 2006 agreement and the 2010 codicil to it will reduce the prefecture’s security burden. The SDP can only promise that the burden will always stay the same.

William Brooks,
APP Senior Fellow


  1. Mr. Brooks seems to take as a given that the US bases shall remain in Japan forever. Not all of us share that assumption, which is why we had hoped PM Hatoyama would take the first step toward changing that situation. This first assumption depends also on his second, regarding the "efficacy of the bilateral security arrangements of the alliance in meeting Japan’s defense needs and in maintaining deterrence in the region." We are becoming increasingly aware that the US military is simply using Japan as a convenient place from which to launch military activities in other parts of the world, and that the troops are not here to protect Japan.
    The commentary further mentions the refusal of Guam to take on more troops, but never mentions that the nearby island of Tinian has offered to do so, and that the SDP was pursuing this option.

  2. What my colleague Dr. Brooks seems entirely obvious to is the voices of the Okinawan people themselves. The polls I have seen show 84-89% of the public there against the Henoko plan.

    It is just dead wrong to pin this on some supposedly "radical" ideology of the Social Democrats. After all, even conservatives like Shizuka Kamei say openly that the Henoko base will never be built.


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