Japanese Defense Chief Comments Leave U.S. Forces in Japan Uneasy; New Government May Try To Change Basing Policy
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Comments made by new Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa about American troops living in Japan are raising red flags for U.S. forces based in Okinawa and potentially the rest of Japan.
Kitazawa on Oct. 15 criticized the basing of U.S. forces in Japan and said he planned to discuss renegotiating a 2006 agreement on restructuring U.S. forces on Okinawa with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit to Tokyo on Oct. 20. Gates also will meet with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Foreign Affairs Minister Katsuya Okada.
“Kitazawa is reiterating the party position in advance of the highest-level meetings and preparing some negotiating room,” said Peter Woolley, a defense specialist on Japan issues. “Japan still needs the U.S. strategically, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any bargaining room.”
The 2006 agreement will move 8,000 U.S. troops to Guam, but the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma will be moved only to another location on Okinawa.
“The DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] and its coalition partners have pledged to relocate Futenma outside Okinawa or even outside Japan itself,” said Christopher Hughes, author of the new book “Japan’s Remilitarisation.”
The defense minister called the presence of U.S. forces on Okinawa “humiliating” to the Japanese citizens on the island. The U.S. government has already indicated it expects the new administration in Tokyo to honor the 2006 agreement on the MCAS move.
“The U.S. does not want to see a whole new agreement on Futenma, nowhere else in Japan really wants Futenma,” Hughes said, “and I think moving it elsewhere or outside would just be too costly, hard to find a location and probably too damaging to the alliance.” He said moving the base to Kadena Air Base on the island had already been rejected by Tokyo.
The comments extinguished hopes that the new administration under the DPJ would rachet down its anti-U.S. military rhetoric. In August, the DPJ won both the prime minister and parliamentary elections.
Hatoyama and other DPJ members made radical statements during the election, calling for the removal of U.S. forces and canceling the 1960 U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). After the election, the DPJ toned down much of its rhetoric, but the recent comments by Kitazawa set off alarm bells in many quarters.
Kitazawa said the Japan-U.S. SOFA was also “humiliating,” and the issue of renegotiating the agreement would be raised with Gates as well.
The base “issue will drag on and not be good for the alliance,” but will not be an “alliance breaker,” said Hughes, adding that the comments will provoke a “minicrisis” in the short term but likely no major damage beyond that. Rewriting SOFA eventually will become the central issue, he said.
Looking Elsewhere for Arms
U.S. arms deals also appear to be under threat. Japan has largely been dependent over the years on U.S. arms for its defense, but Kitazawa suggested the next fighter jet purchase might not be American. Under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan pushed hard for the release of the F-22 Raptor, but there have also been discussions about the F-15 and the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as options.
“Japan doesn’t necessarily have to fill its defense shopping cart with items made in [the] USA,” Woolley said. European options include the Eurofighter Typhoon, but it would be the first-ever nonU.S.-made fighter chosen.
Japan also announced on Oct. 13 the end of refueling operations in January for coalition naval forces in the Indian Ocean that are participating in military support operations in Afghanistan. The move was expected and part of the DPJ’s campaign promises.
“The party can hardly afford to backpedal on its pre-election positions. They can soften their positions. But they can’t be seen by the public to become simply another version of the unpopular LDP,” said Woolley, author of the book “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.” Woolley said the United States needs to understand there have been generational changes in Japan that have altered its perspective on world issues.
“War veterans are retired or retiring. Much of the Japanese public sees the world through postCold War eyes, not through postWorld War II eyes,” he said. “One consequence of the generational change, seen in Okinawa and elsewhere, is that economic development and quality-of-life issues trump defense issues.”