It was an act almost of desperation, and it backfired.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came away empty handed from his attempt to gain some understanding and cooperation from US President Barack Obama over the problem of the Futenma air base relocation, showing that this was no time for making polite requests without a viable proposal. Indeed, with an acceptable alternative plan nowhere in sight, about the only prospect that is coming into view is Hatoyama’s own political demise according to a timetable of his own making.
Hatoyama was coy when it came to revealing to reporters what Obama said during their 10-minute chat over dinner on Monday at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, but all the signs suggested that Obama was in no mood to help Hatoyama make a Houdini-like escape from his current predicament.
By not offering Hatoyama any concessions, the US side can give the impression it isn’t forcing the issue with open criticism of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government. But in riding out the issue until Hatoyama’s end of May deadline, the United States is watching the prime minister trap himself in a corner.
While the end of May must have seemed an age away when Hatoyama’s government set this time frame for resolving the relocation issue back in December, it’s now just six weeks away and the Japanese media was pretty much unanimous Wednesday in saying that the prime minister had no chance of achieving the goal of an alternative location plan by then.
The irony is that of all the Democratic Party of Japan’s election promises, reviewing the relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station was probably the easiest one to break. After all, when two governments have already reached an agreement after years of tough negotiations, most seasoned politicians would claim that despite their best intentions, their hands were tied by a bilateral agreement. But Hatoyama has tried to stick to promises he himself made to move the base out of Okinawa prefecture, and in forming a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party, for which the US bases-out-of-Okinawa issue is a defining policy, the prime minister committed himself arguably too much to the cause of showing that things really had changed in Japan.
But while there’s a certain charm in the streak of political naivety running through Hatoyama, it looks almost certain now to be his downfall. After months in the media spotlight, what chance has he of finding a community in Japan that will welcome the relocation of the airfield?
The latest DPJ plan to relocate part of the functions of the air station to Tokunoshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture are about to be greeted with a demonstration by 10,000 protesters (nearly 40 percent of the island’s population according to the Sankei Shimbun daily) on Sunday. Then there are US doubts over the feasibility of splitting the functions of the airfield.
Not surprisingly, Hatoyama was pilloried by the press on Wednesday. Of the dailies, the supposedly progressive Asahi Shimbun slammed Hatoyama for wasting time by not visiting Okinawa or meeting the prefectural governor. The paper argued it would now be harder to go ahead with the original relocation plan off the shore at Camp Schwab in Henoko, Okinawa, risking the possibility that the Futenma base would not be relocated at all. The Mainichi Shimbun also referred to the increasing likelihood of the worst-case scenario in which Futenma, ‘the world’s most dangerous base,’ would continue to operate in the densely populated residential area of Ginowan, pointing out that Hatoyama had yet to even come up with a plan that his coalition government could agree on, let alone anyone else. For its part, the right-wing Sankei called on Hatoyama to face reality and go ahead with the Henoko plan and avoid the risk of rendering the US-Japan alliance ‘hollow’.
While we should never entirely discard the remote possibility that Hatoyama could come up with a last minute solution, in order to meet his self-imposed deadline, which Hatoyama reiterated to Obama in Washington, the most pragmatic thing he can do is to say he did his best to find an alternative but then return to the original Henoko plan, with perhaps a face-saving minor adjustment or two. About the only other alternative would be to redefine what ‘resolve’ means by spinning it to signify putting a definite proposal on the table by the end of May.
Without the May deadline, Hatoyama might have been able to continue searching longer for a solution that could satisfy the challenging matrix of safety, security, environmental and political issues. But all the signs suggest that with the situation as it is, Hatoyama has staked his political life on an issue that will ultimately be his undoing.