Election not expected to alter U.S.-Japan ties
Stars and Stripes August 30, 2009
CHATAN, Okinawa — Even though Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is expected to get a spanking in Sunday’s Lower House election, don’t look for any immediate changes in the U.S.-Japan security relationship, political observers say.
The Democratic Party of Japan, which is expected to win about 300 of the 480 seats up for grabs, has backed off of previous calls for major revisions to the country’s military relationship with the United States.
Instead, it has campaigned on pledges that focus on domestic issues.
U.S. officials have taken a wait-and-see stand on the prospect of dealing with a new government, particularly in regards to plans to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa by transferring 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam by the end of 2014 and closing several bases.
In a broader agreement signed in May 2006, the so-called Roadmap to Realignment hinged on moving Marine air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new air facility to be built on Camp Schwab.
In the past, the DPJ has opposed the project that U.S. officials have called non-negotiable.
"It’s not maybe everything that everybody wanted," Lt. Gen. Edward Rice, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, said earlier this month. "But it certainly is progress in terms of both providing for the continued defense of Japan and security in the region and decreasing the impact of the presence of U.S. forces on the local communities."
Political observers say the DPJ will be treading cautiously on relations with the U.S. and international relations in general during the first few months it is in power.
That is because DPJ’s priority is domestic issues, said Kazuya Sakamoto, professor of international politics at the University of Osaka.
"Because of this, they would rather maintain the status quo in foreign affairs," he said.
The one change in international affairs, Sakamoto said, will be discontinuing the refueling operations conducted by the Japan Self-Defense Force in the Indian Ocean as part of Japan’s support of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.
"The DPJ announced earlier that refueling operations would be discontinued after January," Sakamoto told Stars and Stripes last week. But that will have little effect on relations between the two countries, he said.
"The operation has rather a symbolic meaning for U.S.-Japan cooperation," he said.
The DPJ has backed away from its previous call for sweeping changes in the status of forces agreement and host nation support for the U.S. bases.
The party’s current platform now calls for minor changes in the SOFA, including stronger requirements on the U.S. to restore property to its original condition when it’s turned over to Japan.
Okinawan DPJ candidates, although strongly against the Futenma relocation project, appear to be toeing the party line.
While Dennie Tamaki, the party’s candidate from the Okinawa City area, is strongly against the project and wants a drastic reduction in the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, he will not be pressing the issue, senior campaign official Masayoshi Ishikawa said Thursday.
"His priority will be on making sure the jobs of the Japanese employees of the bases are secure," Ishikawa said, adding that Tamaki wants to be sure there is replacement employment whenever a base is closed.
After the post-election confetti has been swept away, the DPJ will also be looking to the situation in North Korea, Sakamoto said.
"The most imminent matter for Japan is North Korea’s nuclear issue, not the realignment of U.S. Forces in Japan or the relocation of Futenma air station," he said. "Japan hopes for denuclearization of the peninsula to secure peace and stability in the region."
In an op-ed piece Friday in the New York Times, party leader Yukio Hatoyama, who is expected to be the next prime minister, said "the Japan-U.S. security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy."
However, the country will no longer be the "yes man" he accused the LDP of being.
"We want a relationship where we can make suggestions because we are an ally of the U.S., and not a relationship where we dispatch the Japan Self-Defense Forces overseas having been told to do so by the U.S.," Hatoyama said recently during a news conference in Tokyo.
While the realignment of U.S. troops in Japan may continue, it won’t be at full speed, predicts Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at University of the Ryukyus.
Gabe said it will be difficult for the DPJ to abandon the Futenma relocation project, however.
"It’s already ongoing," Gabe said. "But, if they win more than 300 seats, they will likely meddle with the 2010 budget bill, which includes realignment related costs, scheduled to be submitted to the Diet in September."
That could affect Japan’s promise to contribute 60 percent of the $10 billion price tag placed on the relocation of Marines to Guam, Gabe said.