Asia Scope

Prickly Paradise

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Asia Scope

Prickly Paradise

When Barack Obama visits Japan next month, one issue that’s bound to come up in discussions with recently elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is the issue of the US military presence in Okinawa and, specifically, plans to relocate the US Marines Corps Air Station Futenma.

The Hatoyama administration, in part because it believes the overall current relocation plan for US forces is too pricey, wants to move the base outside Okinawa. As our Japan correspondent Takehiko Kambayashi points out, this would reverse a 2006 agreement between the Liberal Democratic Party-led administration and Washington.

He says Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told Seiji Maehara, state minister in charge of Okinawa affairs, that moving the air station off the island was the ‘best’ scenario but that it ‘isn’t easy from a practical viewpoint.’ The US presence on the island has been the source of tensions over the years, especially with the periodic reports of bad behaviour–or worse–by US servicemen.

Kambayashi explained to me exactly what Nakaima meant by ‘practical viewpoint’.

‘Okinawan leaders have grown accustomed to carrot-and-stick political manoeuvring. They’ve used the base issue to squeeze more money out of Tokyo, and an increasing number of plush facilities started to spring up in sparsely-populated northern Okinawa after a 1998 agreement between Tokyo and Washington to build a military facility in Nago, which will replace the air station.

‘Nago is awash with public projects, tax breaks and other financial infusions from Tokyo. About $50 million was spent in the city to put up three “intelligent buildings”–a multimedia center, the 1st Mirai Center and the 2nd Mirai Center. The city was also a site for the 2000 meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.

‘The central government also spent $26 million on Kanna Thalasso Okinawa (pictured above) a luxurious spa, and $33 million to set up a data centre in the neighbouring village of Ginoza.’

This is all very well, but as Peter Mauch, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto pointed out to me recently, the agreement with the US was one reached between two sovereign governments–the DPJ can’t make a habit of revisiting these kinds of issues.

It will be interesting to see how far Hatoyama is willing to go to recalibrate relations with what is still Japan’s main ally, and also still ultimate guarantor of its defence.