Sunday, February 21, 2010

Japanese Defense at Crossroads over the Futenma US Base Problem

The other day, Hidemi Nagao requested me to write a post on the Futemna base issue, as he is critically concerned with deterioration of US-Japanese relations and growing threat posed to Japan by China and North Korea. In a previous post, I introduced his book, entitled “Eternal Japan-US Alliance” on this blog.

Living in Japan, I am well aware of significant effects of this dispute on Japanese foreign and national security policy. However, the primary focus of this blog is US foreign policy and the world order. Therefore, I have been writing posts on Atlantic, Eurasian, and Middle Eastern affairs, which diverted my attention from the US-Japanese military base problem. It is quite symbolic that President Barack Obama is hardly in touch with this issue, while it stirs up a nationwide controversy in Japan, from leading politicians to the public.

In order to understand basic facts about the Futenma problem, see this link. At first, the Hatoyama administration tried to overturn this deal, and move US troops out of Japan such as Guam and Saipan. Though cabinet members found it difficult, leftist ministers like Mizuho Fukushima, still push for transferring Futenma forces out of Okinawa.

Yoshiko Sakurai, a pro-American nationalist columnist, comments some dark sides of this dispute in her article to a conservative journal widely read among Japanese middle class businessmen. She warns that the result of the mayoral election in Nago city of Okinawa on January 24 will pose a critical challenge to the Hatoyama administration, because a leftist candidate Susumu Inamine was elected. Inamine insists that current plan to move the US marine base from Futenma to Nago be suspended, and those US military facilities get out of Okinawa. Sakurai is critically concerned that Inamine will be aligned with Mayor Nagateru Ohhama of Ishigaki city, another leftist in Okinawa to block the US-Japanese negotiation. Far left politicians and activists launch huge scale protest rallies to the visit of US navy ships in Okinawa. Meanwhile, the threat of China around this area is growing as shown in the case of Chinese submarine intrusion into Japanese territorial water on November 10, 2004. Sakurai criticizes those leftists for ruining Japanese national security. Furthermore, she denounces that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is obsessed with his slogan of “fraternity”, and his appeasement to left wing protestors delays to implement the US-Japanese Okinawa base deal (“Japan Renaissance, No. 397”; Shukan Shincho; February 4, 2010). Mayor Ohhama will run for the mayoral election on February 28.

According to Hidemi Nagao, Shimoji airport in Miyakojima city is very close to Taiwan, and it was one of the candidate sites to transfer US forces in Futenma, before both US and Japanese sides agreed to select Nago. Moreover, he proposes that Japanese Air Self Defense Forces build their bases at Shimoji, along with US troops.

Retired General Yasuhiro Morino, Former Chief Commander of North Eastern Army of the Japanese Ground Force, explored how much Japanese security would be endangered, in case of Sino-American and Sino-Taiwanese military conflicts. Morino, who currently runs his own think tank called Morino Military Institute, argues that southern Okinawa is the frontline of the clash among the United States, China, and Taiwan, and policymakers in Tokyo must be more alert to the rapid growth of Chinese threat in the East China Sea area (“Dreadful impacts of Sino-Taiwanese conflicts on Kyushu and Okinawa: A Simulation by a Self Defense Force Veteran”; Sunday Mainichi; June 11, 2000).

China is not the only problem in North East Asia. Sung-Yoon Lee, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, warns that North Korea will fall into turmoil after the death of ailing Kim Jong Il. He says that possible Chinese military intervention will trigger further tension across the Far East, and the Obama administration is not prepared for this highly likely crisis ("Life After Kim"; Foreign Policy; February 2010).

Considering these security challenges, the Hatoyama administration is too conciliatory to leftists and local protestors. People in Okinawa may feel some burden as 75% of US forces in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. However, people in other area accept burden, according to their local specialties. This is a division of roles to make Japan safe and prosperous. People in Tokyo accept the burden of rush hours, and people in Fukui accept the burden of nuclear power plants.

Quite interestingly, an American diplomat in Tokyo hardly tells serious concern with the Futenma issue, as he thinks that US forces can stay in Okinawa, whether Futenma, Nago, or even Shimoji. In my view, the American side is so optimistic, because the current deal is a product of long time negotiations and they believe no Japanese leaders can overturn it. It is asymmetrical while Japanese leaders from ruling to opposition parties are preoccupied with this issue, the United States sends just senior State Department officials, and neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joseph Biden are involved in the Futenma negotiations.

On the other hand, I was impressed that Europeans mentioned keen interests in this issue at the Japan-Black Sea Area Dialogue. NATO nations have the same problem as Japan does, regarding US military bases. Things are not just Asia-Pacific, but global.

Finally, I would like to remind Japanese policy makers and the public that lukewarm appeasement to leftists and local protestors will undermine Japanese security in the Asia Pacific region, and erode the trust to Japan among Western democracies. Therefore, US troops must stay in Okinawa.