Japan moves to settle dispute with U.S. over Okinawa base relocation

Residents protested Sunday on Tokunoshima against a plan that was reportedly under consideration by the Japanese government to relocate the Futenma air station on Okinawa to their island.
Residents protested Sunday on Tokunoshima against a plan that was reportedly under consideration by the Japanese government to relocate the Futenma air station on Okinawa to their island. (Takaki Yajima/associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Japanese government indicated Friday that it would broadly accept a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa, a move that could ease months of discord between the two allies, U.S. and Japanese officials said.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada presented U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos with a proposal to settle the dispute, telling him that Japan was moving toward accepting significant parts of a 2006 deal to move the Futenma air station from the center of a city of 92,000 to a less populated part of Okinawa, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Okada, however, suggested some changes, including altering the design of the runway at the new air station, planned for the town of Henoko, and moving parts of the Marine Corps facility to an island about 100 miles from Okinawa, the sources said. U.S. officials said they were pleased by the proposal but stressed that it was a first step and that Japanese officials would be providing more details next week.

The meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo marked the first significant good news in a relationship that has been marked by strain, mistrust and befuddlement on both sides ever since a new Japanese government took charge in September after a historic election -- only the second time since the 1950s that an opposition party has taken power.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, came to power on a platform calling for a more equal relationship with the United States. To drive that point home, Hatoyama froze the $26 billion base relocation plan and suggested that the Marines move their airfield off Okinawa and even out of Japan altogether.

The U.S. alliance with Japan is the centerpiece of American policy in Asia and has been a foundation of security in the region for decades. As the alliance has wavered, concern has spread across the region, with officials from South Korea to Australia expressing worries about the future of the U.S. security role.

The meeting Friday followed a brief and blunt tete-a-tete between President Obama and Hatoyama on April 12 during the prime minister's visit to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit. During the 10-minute encounter, Obama told Hatoyama that the two countries were "running out of time" and asked him whether he could be trusted. Japanese officials were so taken aback by the toughness of Obama's tone that they did not draw up a written record of the words exchanged between the two leaders, sources said.

"The president underscored the seriousness of the situation and the need for us to move forward," said a U.S. official who has been involved in the talks with Japan. U.S. officials gave similar treatment to Hatoyama's executive assistant, Tadakatsu Sano, during his visit to Washington this week.

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Obama and Hatoyama "agreed fully on the importance of the relationship and committed to cooperate on alliance issues."

Other events might also have pushed Tokyo to modify its tune.

In mid-April, warships from China's navy conducted one of their largest open-water exercises near Japan. China did not inform Japan of the exercise, and during one of the maneuvers a Chinese military helicopter buzzed a Japanese destroyer, prompting a diplomatic protest from Japan.

The base plan was worked out in part to confront China's expanding military by deploying U.S. forces in Japan more rationally and building up Guam as a counterweight to Beijing's growing navy. Under the plan, 7,000 Marines would move from Japan to Guam.

Hatoyama also has faced pressure from inside Japan. When Washington Post columnist Al Kamen deemed Hatoyama the "loser" of the summit in a column on April 14, it caused a media storm in Japan. On Wednesday, Hatoyama surprised many in the Diet, Japan's parliament, by seeming to agree with the thrust of the piece.

''As The Washington Post says, I may certainly be a foolish prime minister," he said, because he had sought to reopen the Futenma issue. ''If I'd settled . . . last December, I can't say how much easier things would have been, but we weren't in a situation where we could work on reclamation work," he said, referring to long-standing opposition in Okinawa to Futenma's relocation to a landfill site on its east coast.

A large demonstration against the relocation plan is scheduled in Okinawa on Sunday.

In December, Hatoyama promised the United States that Japan would come up with alternatives to the Futenma issue by the end of May.

In March, the Japanese government presented the Obama administration with what the U.S. official dismissively referred to as "ideas, not proposals." One involved building the new station on a massive landfill near the White Beach Naval Facility, also on Okinawa. The other would have had the Marines basically split the air station between a facility on Okinawa and Tokunoshima, an island more than 100 miles to the northeast. None of the ideas was "operationally sustainable or politically viable," a senior Pentagon official said.

But after Friday's meeting, U.S. officials characterized Okada's new package as a "proposal" and expressed satisfaction that both countries were now working toward a solution.

Japanese officials credited a clearer U.S. tone with helping to push Japan toward a broad acceptance of the plan.

The tougher U.S. tactics mark a break from the softer tone that had dominated U.S. interactions with the new Japanese government. Although some officials, such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, had taken a stronger line with Tokyo, others, such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, had been softer. Clinton made statements that Japanese officials interpreted as a sign that the United States was open to renegotiating the relocation deal.

Some in the administration had argued that the United States needed to be sensitive to Japan's new government and recognize the historic nature of the political changes. But others contended that Hatoyama's government misinterpreted the friendly U.S. tone.

"There were clearly mis-signals and misunderstanding on both sides," the U.S. official said. "But it's not necessary to conduct an autopsy on a patient that's still alive. It would have been nice if things had been smoother."

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