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U.S. says ‘yes’ on Futenma; Japan says ‘maybe’

Date Posted: 2009-10-15

The United States has firmly—albeit in a low key fashion—told Japan it has no intentions of renegotiating the planned relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, sending a strong but simple signal to the Japanese Prime Minister, whose chief aides have been speaking openly about abandoning the 2006 agreement and moving the controversial airfield out of Okinawa.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s four key cabinet ministers can’t seem to agree on just what the newly-installed regime in Tokyo wants to do. Hatoyama himself has said within the past week his government could agree to relocate the air station to another Okinawan location, exactly what the 2006 U.S. – Japan Agreement specified. His statement was a contradiction to his own earlier position the airfield should be moved outside Okinawa.

Hatoyama’s four Cabinet ministers insisted only days ago that there will be a review of the realignment plans, meeting to put together a plan that appeases those who want the air field out of the prefecture, while other Okinawans see eye-to-eye with Washington that the airfield needs to remain. Senior American defense officials preparing for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ Japan visit only a few days from now, told senior Japanese officials they’re willing to listen to Tokyo’s thinking, but that there’s no intention to change what’s already been agreed to (in the 2006 Japan-U.S. Agreement). Early September comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be part of the high expections from Japan, when meeting with the Foreign Minister she said the U.S. was ready to talk about the realignments.

The Foreign Minister wants not only the airfield out of Okinawa, but also wants a total shakeup that would unravel the 2006 Japan-U.S. Agreement. “The U.S.-Japanese alliance is extremely important,” Katsuya Okada told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, “but Japan has its own national interests and the United States has its own national interests.” Okada explained “in a true alliance, the two will discuss and adjust in order to realize their national interests,” noting that “in past Japanese diplomacy, the U.S. basically made decisions and Japan was more or less dragged along.”

With U.S. President Barack Obama slated to visit Japan in November, both U.S. and Japanese officials are working feverishly to speed up negotiations over Futenma’s fate. Plans to move Futenma away from densely populated Ginowan City have been in the works since 1996, but every plan has become mired in political, economic and environmental issues. Obama will visit Japan November 12th and 13th as the first stop on his first Asian tour. He’ll also visit China, Korea and Singapore.

Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and the department’s top Asia policy expert, says he’d like to see a “breakthrough” before Obama’s visit, but says there’s still a lot of work to be done. He’s explained the current transfer plan for Futenma moving to Camp Schwab in the much less densely populated northern Okinawa area near Nago City to Japan’s parliamentary defense secretary, Akihisa Nagashima. “We’ve tried to answer every question, and we agreed that this process will continue,” Campbell said.

Japan, hosting some 50,000 U.S. forces across the country, wants to keep the Futenma issue from turning into a major stumbling block or battle line interfering with the 2006 Japan-U.S. Security Agreement. Nagashima has continued his conversations with Campbell with Defense and State Department officials in Washington, telling them there “remain many issues that were not clarified” in Japan over the past week with Campbell.

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