The Debate

Political Uncertainties Deepen Over US Okinawa Air Base

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The Debate

Political Uncertainties Deepen Over US Okinawa Air Base

The U.S. military presence in Okinawa continues to be a fraught issue for Japan.

In a survey that came out this week, 64 percent of voters in Okinawa prefecture in Japan rejected the central government’s plan to reclaim parts of the Henoko district in the city of Nago for the relocation of the Futenma Air Station, the base of operations for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan. Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s approval is necessary for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet to go ahead with an agreement between Tokyo and Washington to build the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF). Although he continues to call for the U.S. government to relocate outside the prefecture, Nakaima is set to make his decision on whether to approve or reject the central government’s proposal next month.

Under the bilateral Okinawa Consolidation Plan, which seeks to reduce the U.S. footprint in Okinawa, the Futenma base will be closed once its replacement airstrip is operational in Nago. Also, last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a national defense bill that will include a realignment budget to move Marine forces to Guam. The Senate will vote on the bill in the next few weeks. Japan will pay a third of the cost for the move, roughly $3.1 billion of the projected 8.6 billion.

The U.S. has tried to ease tensions between its military presence and the local population. It long delayed the scheduled arrival of the MV-22B tilt-rotor Osprey transport aircraft, which was set to replace CH-46 helicopters. With crashes in Morocco and Florida in 2012, there were mounting fears regarding the safety of the aircraft and there was considerable local opposition to deployment. Despite the pushback, a total of 24 Osprey have been deployed to Futenma. The Self-Defense Forces also have plans to deploy Osprey by 2015. The Abe administration is currently working to shift drills using the Osprey onto the Honshu mainland.

The 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen initiated changes in deployment of the American military in Japan. Today, troops are increasingly restricted in venturing off base and have a 10:00 p.m. curfew. Nevertheless, 16 years later, appeasing the island’s deep-rooted resentment has been extremely difficult and the deal to return large parcels of land to Okinawans is unresolved. Roughly 20,000 Marine troops are still there and occupy nearly 20 percent of the main island. Okinawa contains roughly 75 percent of U.S. military forces stationed in Japan.

The U.S. military presence in Okinawa continues to be a fraught issue. In the wake of the crash of an HH-60 helicopter on Camp Hansen this summer that killed one crewmember, there have been numerous protests against the concentration of U.S. military bases on the island. It refueled anger and fear that such an incident could have occurred in a much more densely populated area such as the Futenma base.

Abe’s promise to make good on his efforts to move the U.S. presence will be difficult. His only hope lies in working out a deal with the Okinawan governor. As Senator John McCain of Arizona stated, “I’m guardedly optimistic that if the governor of Okinawa makes the decision that allows us to move forward, that we have a great plan that we can implement.” The Guam relocation is conditional on the progress and approval of the FRF.

In 2010, Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama raised hopes by promising to move the base but had little success. His campaign turned out to be his demise, and he was forced to resign after being in power for only 8 months. He found out that promise was impossible to fulfill. Junichiro Koizumi, who held office from 2001 to 2006, also failed in trying to relocate the base out of Okinawa as other prefectures showed an unwillingness to share Okinawa’s burden.

But where others have failed, Abe hopes to succeed. His administration plans to allocate about 340 million yen to boost the Okinawa economy and satisfy the prefecture’s budget requests for fiscal year 2014. Abe hopes satisfying Nakaima’s incentives will be enough to get him to agree to the proposal. Not only does Abe need it, but also the progress of the U.S. realignment rests entirely on Nakaima’s decision.

If these inducements work, it will remove a thorn in the U.S.-Japan alliance and help deepen cooperation that allows the U.S. to have a stronger presence in the region. It will also give the U.S. the flexibility to focus on addressing broader strategic issues facing Asia and help the pivot get past its initial stages. For Japan, it will strengthen Abe’s new defense strategy and the country’s ability to counter China’s rise and assertiveness.

So will Nakaima give in to U.S. and LDP demands, or be influenced by local politics? In March of this year when Abe moved forward with its application to begin realignment operations, Nakaima indicated he would need roughly 8-10 months to make his decision.  It looks as though Nakaima will be making his decision after the results of a mayoral election in the Henoko district of Nago are announced. And the election is just starting to heat up.

Bunshin Suematsu, the LDP member of the prefectural assembly is up against the incumbent, Susumu Inamine. In Tokyo, there are rising concerns that Inamine, who has been very vocal against the base move, will win the election. When he was elected three years ago, he stated, “there should be no option to relocate the base in Okinawa. The election result clearly shows that to the central government.”

But Abe still thinks he will get the approval he needs. In November, the local chapter of Abe’s LDP reversed its opposition to the replacement facility because they believed Nakaima would approve the Henoko project. Even if Suematsu wins, and Nakaima then approves the project, which is not a guarantee, Abe will still face serious pushback from the local population demanding he scrap the agreement. Public protests haven’t stopped him in the recent past. If that’s any indication at all, further plunges in approval ratings won’t sway Abe’s decision-making.

Abe has spoken. Bolstering Japan’s defense capabilities and strengthening the security alliance with its U.S. ally is more important than any popularity contest.

Justin McDonnell is an Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat.