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Signs of a growing US-Japan split in Okinawa base dispute?

The Pentagon has agreed to shrink the size of its forces, but the Japanese prime minister vowed to get an unpopular Okinawa base moved entirely. Officials will try to resolve the US-Japan dispute Wednesday.

By Staff writer / May 11, 2010

A Hercules aircraft is seen on a runway at US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa May 3. American and Japanese officials will try to resolve the US-Japan dispute over relocation of a US Marine air base on Okinawa, Wednesday.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

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Washington

American and Japanese officials will take another stab Wednesday at resolving a dispute over relocation of a US Marine air base on Okinawa. The dispute has revealed cracks in the US-Japan alliance and deepened concerns in Washington over Japan as a partner in East Asian security.

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Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s deadline of May 31 for finding a solution is fast approaching, but the two sides’ demands are seemingly still far apart. The prospect of Mr. Hatoyama’s government falling because of the issue is rising, both Japanese and US East Asia experts say.

Perhaps the only thing standing in the way of that outcome is that no attractive alternatives to Hatoyama are waiting in the wings. Japan has already had four prime ministers in four years.

Still, more months of a weak leader in Tokyo who is unable to make good on a campaign commitment to build a more equal and mature relationship with the United States will only send Washington elsewhere for more reliable Asian partners, the experts add.

“This [base issue] has already had a corrosive effect on the US-Japan alliance,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington.

The dispute stems from rejection by Hatoyama – prime minister since last September – of a 2006 US-Japan troop-realignment agreement that moves 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam. The agreement also calls for replacing Okinawa’s Futenma Marine air base, located near a crowded city, to a more remote site.

Hatoyama came into office promising to move Futenma, unpopular with local residents, off Okinawa and perhaps even to a location outside Japan.

Last week, he appeared to concede that Futenma would remain on Okinawa. According to reports from Tokyo this week, he has settled on a compromise, to be presented to Washington, to move the base to a distant site. At least one runway would be built on pilings in a bay to reduce environmental impact.

Noting that Hatoyama has waffled repeatedly on deadlines and altered pronouncements based on his audience, Mr. Klingner says a joke circulating in Tokyo paints a devastating picture of the prime minister’s leadership on the issue.

“Who’s the most influential on Mr. Hatoyama?” asks the joke, according to Klingner, who just returned to Washington from Japan. “Whoever last talked to him.”

An air base of 2,000 marines may seem like an unlikely straw to break the back of a six-decade-old alliance. But, Klingner says, US officials worry that the Futenma row is a sign of more indecisiveness and political upheaval to come from Japan over defense and security issues.

“They [US officials] see Futenma not as a one-off, but as a potential harbinger of things to come,” he says.

In arguing the case for a Marine air base on Okinawa, US officials have followed a mistaken path, Klingner believes, by emphasizing the “soft” or humanitarian tasks the marines could be deployed to quickly instead of focusing more on the “hard” or security role.

One outcome of that approach is that nonmilitary arguments have been allowed to dominate the debate. That, in turn, may have convinced many Japanese that the base is not really an essential feature.

The outcome, says Klingner, is that “we’re shooting ourselves in the foot simply to accommodate the local Okinawan population.”

[Editor's note: The original subhead of this story mistakenly implied that the Pentagon was prepared to shrink the size of a Marine air base on Okinawa.]

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