Hatoyama accommodates the US on Futenma

Author: Tobias Harris, MIT

It may have taken a few months longer than I expected, but it appears that the Hatoyama government may have finally accommodated itself to the 2006 agreement on the realignment of US forces. The US and Japanese governments have reached an understanding regarding the future of Futenma following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tokyo.

The latest bilateral agreement largely reaffirms the 2006 roadmap: the Hatoyama government has agreed to the construction of a new runway somewhere in the vicinity of Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay, with the details regarding the precise location and the method of construction to be decided by President Obama’s visit to Japan in autumn. The US, meanwhile, agreed to disperse some training activities from Okinawa to elsewhere in Japan. The Hatoyama government has also stated that it will campaign for the inclusion in the Two-Plus-Two statement due 28 May a pledge to return bases in Okinawa to Japanese ownership within ten to fifteen years.

The Hatoyama government’s work is by no means complete. Not only will it have to coax prefectural and local officials in Okinawa into not making too much of a fuss, but the government will also have to work to preserve the governing coalition. Fukushima Mizuho, Social Democratic Party chief and consumer affairs minister, replied to the news by asking why the prime minister went ahead with talks with the US without securing the support of the Okinawan people and his own coalition. Whether Fukushima’s remarks are the prelude to the SDPJ’s pulling out of the coalition remains to be seen. Even more troublesome for the prime minister could be the opposition of Ozawa Ichiro, the secretary-general of his own party. Despite his professions to having no role in policymaking, Ozawa has not refrained from taking a hard line in calling for relocation of Futenma outside of Okinawa entirely. Responding to the latest agreement, Ozawa said it would be ‘difficult’ to secure the acquiescence of the Okinawan people (which, one would think, would be at least partly Ozawa’s job as secretary-general).

It is tempting to criticise the Hatoyama government for its supposed ‘about face’ on Futenma. However, from the beginning of this dispute the government has repeatedly stressed that it was keeping all options on the table, including the reaffirmation of the 2006 agreement as it stands. As I’ve said before, the Hatoyama government was acting in good faith. It genuinely wanted to review the 2006 agreement in the hope of finding something better. Had the US government not reacted so harshly to the Hatoyama government’s fairly modest request, and perhaps even signaled its willingness to offer concessions early on this dispute could very well have been contained and even resolved months ago. As it stands, prolonged public exposure gave the Okinawan public time to mobilise, making it that much harder for the Hatoyama government to secure domestic approval for a slightly revised agreement.

While the Hatoyama government may have been genuinely open to the 2006 agreement from the start, one cannot rule out the possibility that Hatoyama has genuinely come to believe that the 2006 agreement is by and large the best option. Given that the prime minister has been rather guarded about his preferences, it is difficult to say. However, Hatoyama has certainly made more frequent use of phrases like ‘national interest’ in recent weeks than he did a mere nine months ago. As the dispute wore on, he became noticeably more inclined to speak of US bases in terms of regional security and deterrence (something Martin Frid noticed). Presumably Hatoyama will be expected to give an honest account of his reasoning to his own party, his party’s coalition partners, and local officials in the days to come.

The damage to his government has, of course, already been done, because the damage to the government’s reputation had less to do with the substance of the realignment plan — about which the public is divided — than with the government’s gross incompetence in its handling of the issue. Despite its persistent efforts to remind the public that all options were on the table, I wonder whether the public will see the government’s actions as anything but capitulation after months of dithering. At the very least the government has removed the issue from the front burner, freeing it to direct its (and the public’s) attention to other matters before the upper house election expected to be held in July.

What of the US-Japan alliance? Despite the warnings from Washington of the damage that Hatoyama was doing to the alliance by asking for time to consider whether there might be a plan that would satisfy all parties, the reality is that the alliance is more durable than the Cassandras thought. That is at least in part thanks to China’s latest maritime mischief and North Korea’s torpedoing of the Cheonan. The idea of a desire on the part of the Hatoyama government to replace the US-Japan alliance with a Sino-Japanese entente was always far-fetched, but it seemed more plausible among some in the shadow of the Futenma.

Indeed, in retrospect the reaction of US officials and commentators to the Hatoyama government’s request seems even more overblown given the lack of histrionics in Washington in response to Britain’s new coalition government, given that both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg have questioned the US-UK ‘special relationship’ in terms not altogether different from the DPJ. (Stephen Walt puts the attitudes of both governments in wider context here.) The difference, of course, is that whereas Britain has to find the right balance between its ties between the US and the European Union, Japan has to navigate between the US and China. It goes without saying that London’s relations with Brussels do not cause nearly as much anxiety in Washington as Tokyo’s with Beijing. But recognising the difference does not excuse the overreaction. The Hatoyama government was not the first and will not be the last government of a US ally in Asia to argue with the US while trying to maintain a constructive relationship with China. The sooner Washington recognises that the better it will be for both the US and its allies.

Meanwhile, this new agreement does not mean that the DPJ is abandoning its belief in a balanced, Asia-centered foreign policy in which the alliance is important but not all-consuming. ‘Resolving’ Futenma is a necessary first step to actually discussing what the alliance should look like as the DPJ continues to pursue closer bilateral ties throughout Asia — and not just or primarily with China.