US-Japan Airbase Spat May Have Regional Ripples

A protest of more than 90,000 Okinawans Sunday over the proposed relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps airbase in the southern Japanese prefecture has fueled speculation in Washington that the U.S.-Japanese alliance may be facing a serious test with the election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and that such strains might have serious implications for the U.S.’s ability to balance Chinese naval power in East Asia.

Prior to taking office in September 2009, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s election platform included a call for reexamining Japan’s ties with the U.S., with a particular focus on the 50,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan. 

Now Hatoyama is facing the difficult task of negotiating a mutually agreeable basing arrangement with Washington while maintaining the support of a constituency who threw their backing behind his promises to renegotiate the relocation of the Marine base at Futenma. 

The rally, which received media attention in both the U.S. and Japan, comes after the Japanese government indicated last Friday that it would accept a plan to move the Marine base on Okinawa — an announcement well received by those on both sides of the Pacific who have worried about Washington and Tokyo’s protracted impasse on the issue. 

"I think that the Japanese government is in a difficult position. They want to abide by their campaign promise but they’ve received such an enormous amount of pressure from the [Barack] Obama administration. It’s made them schizophrenic," John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS. 

"My hope is that the Obama administration will say ‘look, this base has little strategic utility. If we can get an agreement where the Pentagon gets what it wants, which is a contingency force that can deal with the nuclear weapons in North Korea if the North Korean regime collapses, then let’s talk about that and how the contingency can be met’," he said. 

Analysts are torn over whether the recent difficulties between the DPJ government and Washington are simply an overblown disagreement over the details of long-planned relocation of the Marine base at Futenma or a symptom of a weakening U.S.-Japan alliance. 

"Even if Mr. Hatoyama eventually gives in on the base plan, we need a more patient and strategic approach to Japan. We are allowing a second-order issue to threaten our long-term strategy for East Asia," wrote Harvard University professor and Asia expert Joseph Nye in a Jan. 7 New York Times op-ed. 

"Futenma, it is worth noting, is not the only matter that the new government has raised. It also speaks of wanting a more equal alliance and better relations with China, and of creating an East Asian community — though it is far from clear what any of this means," Nye said. 

Indeed Hatoyama and the DPJ ran on a platform of creating a more equal alliance in its relations with the U.S. and have already participated in some high-profile diplomatic exchanges with China. 

Nye’s argument that Futenma, while perhaps a challenging component of the U.S.-Japan alliance, is not the biggest issue at hand has been reflected this week by a spur of interest — most notably in articles in the New York Times and Washington Post — in China’s rapid buildup of naval power. 

While concerns over Futenma are worth addressing, much attention here in Washington has been focused on the shifting geopolitical forces in East Asia — changes which are hardly exemplified by the spat over the rebasing of a Marine base on Okinawa. 

The growing influence of Chinese naval power was on display last March when two Chinese warships docked in Abu Dhabi, the first time the modern Chinese navy has made a port visit in the Middle East. 

Expansion of Chinese naval power is an inevitable component of China’s increasing economic power as the U.S. sphere of influence in East Asia and the Middle East faces its first serious challenge since the end of World War II. 

China’s rise as a regional military power has been long predicted but the navy’s new strategy of "far sea defense" goes well beyond the previous, relatively narrow doctrine of responding to an attack on the Chinese coast or going to war over Taiwan. 

Instead, the new strategy would task the navy to patrol sea lanes and escort commercial vessels along China’s coast, the Strait of Malacca and the Persian Gulf. 

The expansion of the Chinese navy’s mission, according to some observers, brings Beijing closer to a confrontation with the U.S. as China, the region’s economic powerhouse, begins to take a wider view of its economic and security interests in East and Southeast Asia. 

Others assert that neither the disagreement over Futenma nor the rising Chinese regional influence amount to a seismic shift in Asia-Pacific geopolitics. 

Recent reports from the Washington Post‘s John Pomfret would suggest that Washington and Tokyo have come to an understanding on a broad outline of the rebasing of the Futenma airbase. 

Hatoyama and the DPJ were quick to deny that such an agreement existed, an understandable response when facing down 90,000 of their constituents in Okinawa who object to any hint that the DPJ may back down from its position of renegotiating the basing agreement. 

"…[We’d] argue that on balance, the trend in recent weeks from the DPJ government has been to try to find a way to make a deal with the U.S., rather [than] spend its time trying to explain why it can’t make a deal," wrote Chris Nelson in the insider newsletter The Nelson Report

Nelson’s summary of the recent news of an agreement, of some sort, and the domestic political challenges facing Hatoyama in Okinawa are the real story beneath the surface. 

U.S. strategic interests are, indisputably, a component of the disagreement over Futenma but the real challenge lies in whether Hatoyama can present a plan for rebasing the Futenma airbase to his constituents without losing their support. 

Understandably, any sign that U.S. interests in East Asia are threatened brings concern in Washington, but the challenge of negotiating a rebasing in Okinawa is a footnote in the bigger question facing Washington over what a growing Chinese regional influence will mean for the U.S. naval presence in East Asia. 

Harvard International Relations Professor Stephen Walt argues on his blog that a rising China does not, inherently, pose an immediate threat or seismic shift in East Asian geopolitics. He predicts that Chinese economic growth will slow as its population ages and that while China’s military strength is growing, it has a long way to go before it becomes a true "peer competitor" of the U.S. 

(Inter Press Service)