Sunday’s election of independent candidate Takeshi Ogaga as governor of Okinawa could pose severe problems for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and potentially the structure of Japan’s most strategic alliance with the U.S. While the ultimate fate of the new air base in the Henoko district of Nago is now uncertain, it highlights how fragile this linchpin in the U.S. military’s strategic presence in East Asia has become over the last few years. It will take some very delicate political maneuvering – or perhaps some heavy-handed government control – to keep the base transfer agreement intact.
The election and subsequent attack on the base by the new governor could hardly come at a more inopportune time for the U.S., Japan and their alliance structure. On the same day, at the G20 Summit in Brisbane, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Japanese and Australian counterparts were agreeing to “deepen their military cooperation and work together on strengthening maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.” While their statements did not include any explicit references to U.S. forces based in Okinawa, they were clearly directed at China’s growing military presence in the region, against which Okinawa is a vital outpost in the East China Sea.
After his victory was announced on Sunday night, Onaga made it clear that he wouldn’t “let [the Japanese government] build a new base off the sea of Henoko.” Even though Onaga and his main challenger, the incumbent Hirozakuza Nakaima, both ran as independents, Onaga was backed by three opposition parties while Nakaima had the support of the ruling LDP. Nakaima’s support for the base transfer and his acceptance of a large assistance package in exchange for his cooperation were clearly factors in Onaga’s impressive victory.
After the election results came in, the spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense said the DoD does not make comment on local Japanese elections, but that it “will continue to work closely with the Japanese Defense Ministry on all matters that affect our security alliance.” Were Onaga able to interfere with the development of the Henoko base, it could adversely affect U.S. plans to relocate Marines currently stationed at Futenma to Guam, which are entering final legislative discussions in the U.S. Congress late this month.
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Onaga has a few courses of action available in order to stop the new base; however, it is not clear if the national government will allow them to be used. While campaigning Onaga said he could reject an application that allowed for a change in the method of landfill used at Henoko, possibly on the grounds that the application was submitted by Okinawa’s defense bureau over the Nago mayor’s opposition. He has also threatened to revoke the landfill approval granted by Nakaima last year, and to more closely investigate the new base’s environmental effects.
The national government is aware of these threats and has begun to put Onaga on notice. Government officials told the Yomiuri that “a head of local government should not let his or her political views affect the application for changes in the landfill method as it falls into the category of administrative work entrusted by the central government to a local government,” and that “Onaga is not allowed to overturn the approval arbitrarily because the prefectural government has already decided on it.” Those officials have also made it known that Okinawa’s prefectural budget could be affected if Onaga goes through with his plans.
A failure to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps. base would mean that the facility at Futenma Air Station would have to remain in use, despite considerable local opposition to it. It could also adversely impact the transfer of other U.S. assets near Kadena Air Base, also on Okinawa. It would effectively keep the troops on Okinawa that the U.S. is seeking to transfer to Guam, and exacerbate the friction between the local community and the foreign troops stationed there.
This poses two problems for the U.S. and its alliance. First, it attracts negative and unwanted international attention to the Okinawa issue, giving China additional ammunition to challenge U.S. legitimacy and Japanese sovereignty in the region. Second, it creates further tension on a small island where nearly half of U.S. troops in Japan are stationed, which could have negative repercussions for the operational effectiveness of a force at the vanguard of U.S. power projection in East Asia. These are problems that the U.S. and Japan will have to overcome, while addressing the concerns of the local population; otherwise this protracted local stalemate could escalate into a serious strategic issue.