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Japanese lawmaker: Obama pushing us toward China

When Barack Obama met briefly with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the sidelines of last month’s nuclear summit, he asked the Japanese leader to follow through on his promise to resolve the U.S.-Japan dispute over relocating the Marine Corps base on Okinawa. But as Hatoyama’s self-imposed May deadline approaches, it doesn’t look like the ...

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569314_100504_k-tanioka2.jpg

When Barack Obama met briefly with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the sidelines of last month's nuclear summit, he asked the Japanese leader to follow through on his promise to resolve the U.S.-Japan dispute over relocating the Marine Corps base on Okinawa.

But as Hatoyama's self-imposed May deadline approaches, it doesn't look like the prime minister is going to be able to deliver, and some Japanese lawmakers are now going public with their criticism of the way the Obama administration has handled the issue.

One of them is Kuniko Tanioka, a member of Japan's upper house of parliament and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and a close advisor to Hatoyama. During a visit to Washington Tuesday, Tanioka leveled some of the harshest criticism from a Japanese official to date of the Obama team's handling of the Futenma issue, which is still unresolved despite months of discussions.

When Barack Obama met briefly with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the sidelines of last month’s nuclear summit, he asked the Japanese leader to follow through on his promise to resolve the U.S.-Japan dispute over relocating the Marine Corps base on Okinawa.

But as Hatoyama’s self-imposed May deadline approaches, it doesn’t look like the prime minister is going to be able to deliver, and some Japanese lawmakers are now going public with their criticism of the way the Obama administration has handled the issue.

One of them is Kuniko Tanioka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and a close advisor to Hatoyama. During a visit to Washington Tuesday, Tanioka leveled some of the harshest criticism from a Japanese official to date of the Obama team’s handling of the Futenma issue, which is still unresolved despite months of discussions.

“We are worried because the government of the United States doesn’t seem to be treating Prime Minister Hatoyama as an ally,” she told an audience at the East-West Center. “The very stubborn attitude of no compromise of the U.S. government on Futenma is clearly pushing Japan away toward China and that is something I’m very worried about.”

Some Japan hands in Washington see Tanioka as marginal, a left-wing backbencher who just recently entered Japanese politics in 2007. But she is close to Hatoyama and serves as the “vice manager” for North America inside the DPJ’s internal policy structure.

At issue is a 2006 agreement between the Bush administration and the former Japanese government run by the Liberal Democratic Party. That agreement would have moved the Futenma Air Station, which sits in the middle of a populated area of Okinawa, to a less obtrusive part of the island.

Hatoyama and the DPJ campaigned on the promise to alter the plan but ran into a wall when U.S. officials initially insisted the old agreement be honored, even though the old government had been thrown out.

Since then, Pentagon and State Department officials have been conducting quiet negotiations, but the administration is still waiting for the Japanese side to propose a detailed alternative to the current plan.

Meanwhile, huge protests in Okinawa have constrained Hatoyama’s room for maneuver — and Tanioka said the United States was partly to blame.

“It seems to us Japanese that Obama is saying ‘You do it, you solve, it’s your problem,'” she said, noting that public opinion polls in Japan show increasing dissatisfaction with the presence of U.S. military forces there.

Obama should have granted Hatoyama a bilateral meeting during the recent nuclear summit if he is really concerned about Futenma, she said, not just a passing conversation at dinner.

“If it is such a serious problem, then he should have sat down. If it’s not so serious of a problem, he should say so.”

Administration officials have also said repeatedly that they are willing to consider adjustments to the current Futenma relocation plan, but it has to be “operationally feasible,” meaning it meets Marine Corps needs, and “politically feasible,” meaning that the Japanese host communities can go along.

Therein lies the problem, according to Tanioka, because, she says, “There is no politically feasible plan.”

“Washington works under the assumption the original plan was feasible. It was not,” she said.

While Tanioka acknowledges that Hatoyama and the DPJ have made some mistakes, especially in dealing with the media, she suggested that now the security relationship itself could be in danger.

“It’s getting much worse than I expected,” she said. “They are going to start saying ‘all bases out,’ not only the Marines.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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