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Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

Hatoyama and Obama put off hard decisions

Staff writer

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama shared a firm handshake Friday in front of the cameras at their bilateral meeting, but behind the smiles lie tensions between the two countries that have yet to be addressed.

Analysts said the most symbolic issue the two leaders avoided was the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture, which was agreed to by Tokyo and Washington in a 2006 accord.

Koji Murata, a political science professor at Doshisha University, pointed out that the Hatoyama administration is only focusing on general, long-term goals and avoiding difficult issues that need to be dealt with more urgently.

"The Democratic Party of Japan just wants to focus on clean, global, long-term topics," Murata said.

"The characteristic of DPJ diplomacy is that it is interested in long-term and abstract goals but cannot solve concrete, short-term issues — how can such a country expect to influence major powers like the U.S. and China?"

During the campaign for the Aug. 30 general election, Hatoyama as president of the DPJ promised voters that a government led by his party would be tougher in diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. and seek "an equal footing" with Washington.

Specifically, the DPJ has argued that the Futenma air base should be moved outside Okinawa or even the country, giving more consideration to the antimilitary sentiment of Okinawans.

But well before his summit with Obama, Hatoyama, who became prime minister in September, had indicated he wouldn't prioritize the sensitive relocation issue in their talks. His stance was due to the lack of progress in negotiations given the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment across Japan regarding U.S. bases and Washington's reluctance to merge Futenma's flight operations with the nearby U.S. Kadena air base.

Avoiding the Futenma issue during Obama's stay in Tokyo "was convenient for both sides," Murata said.

"Japan didn't want to bring it to the table because it knew it couldn't solve it before Obama's arrival, and on the other hand, the U.S. is dealing with various difficult issues like Afghanistan and (domestic) health insurance, and it didn't want to expose disagreements" with Japan.

As concern grew over the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Japan, the two governments decided to set up a ministerial-level working group earlier in the week to "probe" Futenma's relocation. However, no deadline for reaching a decision has been set.

"This is merely a way to buy time — there is no idea behind" the working group, Murata said.

"No one knows what (the government) is trying to do by 'probing' . . . the working group is just to postpone the conclusion and the situation is just bound to get worse."

The Liberal Democratic Party-led government signed the 2006 bilateral agreement with the U.S. to move the Futenma base's flight operations in Ginowan to Camp Schwab in Henoko on the northern part of the island by 2014.

During Friday's joint news conference with Hatoyama, Obama stressed the importance of implementing the 2006 accord.

The working group "will focus on the implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached with respect to the restructuring of the U.S. forces in Okinawa and we hope to complete this work expeditiously," Obama said.

"Our goal remains the same — and that is to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share the space."

Earlier in the week, Yoichi Iha, the mayor of Ginowan, urged Hatoyama not to give in to the U.S., saying the prime minister "has the political responsibility to abide by" the promises made by his party to move the Futenma air station out of Okinawa.

"I think very strongly that if Hatoyama were to simply give a seal of approval to an agreement that had been made by the previous government, that would be tantamount to (his party) committing suicide," Iha said.

Hatoyama has refrained from making any concrete promises, only saying that the working group would reach a conclusion as soon as possible.

"I told President Obama that we take the Japan-U.S. agreement with the previous government seriously," Hatoyama said Friday evening.

"At the same time, I told him that it is also a fact that our party campaigned (for the Lower House election) for the base to be moved out of the prefecture or out of the country."

In the election, all four Diet seats in Okinawa Prefecture went to candidates in the coalition led by the DPJ. But Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, pointed out that if the lawmakers in Okinawa disagree with the government's ultimate answer for Futenma, they should consider leaving the party.

"If the DPJ lawmakers in Okinawa are dissatisfied, they should leave the DPJ, or the people of Okinawa should just vote for somebody else in the next election," Watanabe said. "This is what democracy is all about — people always have a choice."

Watanabe said Hatoyama and Obama were correct during the summit to focus on the fundamental alliance between Japan and the U.S. because that will be the foundation for future negotiations on specific policies, including the Futenma air base.

"The core of the meeting lies in the discussion of the significance the Japan-U.S. alliance, and what they can do for the security of the world and the region," Watanabe said. "This is the perfect opportunity to think of what Japan and the U.S. can do in a positive light."

But Watanabe also pointed out that realistically, time is running out to solve the Futenma issue as the U.S. is trying to enact its defense budget for 2010 by the year's end. Many critics are urging Hatoyama to follow the 2006 accord.

"The actions of the government are always caught in the gap between public sentiment and bilateral ties with other countries," Watanabe said.

"A government can't act on everything in accordance with what the public wants. It has to balance both (public sentiment and diplomacy) — and the DPJ is standing at this critical juncture."

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