The Cable

U.S. officials see chaos in Japanese decision making

When Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting in Canada, he told her that Japan probably couldn’t stick to a 2006 agreement to move a controversial Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa. "I said [to Clinton] we fully recognized the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

When Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting in Canada, he told her that Japan probably couldn’t stick to a 2006 agreement to move a controversial Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa.

"I said [to Clinton] we fully recognized the U.S. position that the existing plan was the best," Okada told reporters after meeting her. "But given the current situation, I explained … there are too many difficulties."

But while some observers see the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma air station as a crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance, for Japan hands inside the Obama administration, the dispute is a manageable one and doesn’t threaten the overall cooperation between the two allies. Administration officials do admit, however, that the Japanese seem to be flailing, struggling to outline a clear position and sending mixed messages from Tokyo to Washington.

"No one is foolish enough to think about crashing this relationship about a military base," one administration official close to the issue told The Cable. "We’re going to try to see if the Japanese can move this forward over the next couple of months."

Two administration officials confirmed that Japan has now submitted a package of alternate ideas for relocating the base, which has riled local residents for decades. None of those ideas match what the U.S. and Japan agreed to in 2006, to move the air station across the island to reclaimed land near Okinawa’s Camp Schwab. But that’s OK, the officials said, privately acknowledging that some compromise away from the original deal will be necessary.

What is not OK is that the Japanese provided the U.S. only broad outlines of plans without specifics. Those specifics are what the U.S. side needs to come back with any counterproposals.

"They have not given us proposals; they’ve given us ideas or concepts, so that means it’s preliminary," one official said. "The ball continues to be in their court. They’ve got to provide us real proposals that take into account political and operational criteria in Okinawa."

The ideas the Japanese put forth mostly include some mix of the Marines at Futenma relocating within Okinawa and some to a different place. Of course, the current plan includes Marines moving to Guam, but the question is how many. The U.S. has some flexibility on this question, but at the same time the Pentagon has clear operational requirements, and those need to be satisfied no matter what happens.

Both administration officials lamented that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan can’t seem to speak with one voice on the issue. Okada, the foreign minister, is supposed to speak for the DPJ on the dispute, but other officials keep going off message.

For example, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on the floor of his own legislature, "I have my own plan in mind, and the ministers who need to know are aware of it," adding, "I will stake my life on addressing this issue, and I will come up with successful results."

"To me, that’s like saying the check is in the mail," said Michael Auslin, a Japan expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "I haven’t met anyone who believes he has a plan and I haven’t met anyone who knows what his plan is."

Auslin states openly what administration officials say privately: that the confusion within the top ranks of the Japanese ruling party is troubling and poses a larger problem that goes beyond Futenma. They also complain the DPJ unleashed such a tsunami of political activity about the issue in Japan that they now can’t contain.

"Hatoyama has completely lost control of the process and the party," said Auslin. "He’s not able to deliver anything on Okinawa anymore so that’s why we are getting mixed messages."

The Japanese had set a May deadline for themselves to come up with a solution, but that seems unlikely to be met. Here again, Obama’s Japan team is willing to be flexible, to a point.

"We’re not going to let an artificial deadline crash us," one official said.

But if and when a compromise is reached, that’s only the beginning. The relevant environmental studies and operational evaluations would have to be completed, all over again. Then the DPJ has to sell it to their localities, no easy task. Then both sides have to come up with new funding details. Then there’s implementation.

The looming deadline on the Washington side is the congressional appropriations cycle. Congressmen may not want to fully fund the massive expansion of the Marine Corps presence in Guam because that is dependent on the Futenma deal going through.

And what happens if it doesn’t go through? What then?

As one official put it, "There are several imponderables on the political side."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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