Thursday, September 3, 2009

Relocation of US troops will test Japan’s new PM

Thursday, September 03, 2009 TOKYO: Reservations within Japan’s incoming government about a plan to move thousands of US Marines off Okinawa will likely be the first test of its leader’s efforts to remake the country’s relationship with Washington while maintaining their strong alliance. Yukio Hatoyama, riding a landslide victory by his Democratic Party of Japan in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, is expected to be formally voted in as prime minister as early as early as Sept. 16, ending more than a half-century of almost uninterrupted rule by the staunchly pro-Washington Liberal Democratic Party. Though Hatoyama is facing a mountain of economic problems, including Japan’s worst unemployment rate since World War II, attention is also keenly focused on his ability to fulfill promises that he will remake Tokyo’s relationship with Washington. Hatoyama has said he wants Japan’s relationship with the US — a key trade partner and the Asian power’s strongest ally — to be more equal. The transfer of Marines off the southern island of Okinawa could be the first test of that effort, analysts said Tuesday. Under a deal negotiated with the US, Tokyo agreed to foot part of the bill to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to a new base in Guam by 2014, easing overcrowding on the Japanese island that hosts more than half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in the country. About 10,000 Marines will remain. But the accord is murky on a number of points, and one of Hatoyama’s first dealings with Washington will be to iron it out. Another key issue he’ll have to address is a long-delayed plan to relocate Okinawa’s Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a new location. Washington has already tried to head off any attempts by the new government to re-negotiate the terms of the agreements. “The United States has no intention to re-negotiate the Futenma replacement facility plan or Guam relocation with the government of Japan,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. The challenge comes amid concerns over Hatoyama’s inexperience in foreign affairs and worries that his desire for more balanced relations with Washington and deeper ties with Asian neighbors could open a rift between the old allies. Those have largely been fuelled by an op-ed published in The New York Times ahead of Sunday’s election, in which he suggested that Japan had suffered under US-led globalization. He appeared to try and distance himself somewhat from the controversy, however, saying in comments broadcast Tuesday on Japanese television that what he wrote “was in no way an expression of anti-US views.” But the Democrats have raised concerns with several components of the accords with the US Some members, for instance, have questioned Japan’s contribution to the cost of moving the troops. It has pledged more than $6 billion. The party is also resisting US plans to build an air base to replace Futenma elsewhere on Okinawa — a component Washington says is integral to the deal. In August, some 200 people gathered to oppose the use of Futenma at the campus of Okinawa International University, where a helicopter crashed five years ago, damaging a school building and triggering calls for shutting the base. They want the base off the island altogether, not simply relocated to a less congested area. Hatoyama’s party, too, says the base should be moved someplace else in Japan — though no other sites have been suggested. Failure to find a suitable replacement could throw off the timing of the Marines’ move and damage the new government’s relationship with the US “Japan-US alliance and security issues will be a crucial test for the Democrats,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy at the Tokyo Foundation, a private think tank. “If the Okinawa issues don’t go smoothly, it could affect the Japan-US alliance.” Security relations with the United States are good, but Okinawans have long bristled at the difficulties of hosting so many troops, such as crime by US personnel and congestion caused by the existence of the bases that take up a large swath of the island, and analysts said tensions over the Marines’ presence could flare up. “Basically, the DPJ will try to buy as much time as possible, but they can’t avoid the issue,” said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa. “The good news is that President Barack Obama may be willing to take a fresh look at the problems.” Japanese officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the schedule has not been finalized, said US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is expected to visit Tokyo by November to discuss the military alliance. Another thorn in the relationship could arise if Tokyo decides not to renew a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean that provides support for US-led coalition troops in Afghanistan. The Democrats have said they want to end it when it next comes up for renewal in January. “The Democrats’ security and diplomatic stance is pretty much a blank sheet, but they will have to come up with a convincing policy as soon as possible,” the Tokyo Foundation’s Watanabe said. “It’s a difficult task, like delivering a baby.” Source : The News International

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