Compared to relations with Israel, Washington’s ties with another key ally, Japan, remain strong, though some of the same personal dynamics come into play. As far as can be known, Barack Obama feels little of the antipathy he is known for harboring for Benjamin Netanyahu towards Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister. Sources inside his government instead reveal a general distrust on the part of America’s very liberal president for Japan’s very conservative prime minister. Despite this, the White House just announced that Abe will arrive in the United States on April 28 for an official visit that will include an official dinner (not a state dinner, since Abe is not the head of state), and an address to a joint session of Congress that Obama will not try to derail.
Also, as with Israel, the working relations between the two countries remains strong, despite whatever personal reservation there is between the leaders. Over the past several years, Washington and Tokyo have moved to deepen their alliance, and Japan’s own modest military buildup and development of a national security strategy that implicitly acknowledges the uncertainties engendered by a rising China, fits in well with Washington’s general policy of maintaining a strong American presence in Asia, and (giving credit where it is due) under Obama, attempting to expand America’s working partnerships, especially in Southeast Asia.
Yet dealing with democracies is always tricky (just ask Iran’s mullahs), and U.S.-Japanese relations have just been blindsided again. In this case, it is local opposition in the far southern island of Okinawa to a long-planned transfer of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the congested southern part of the island to the less-populated north. Okinawa’s new governor, elected on an anti-base campaign, today ordered construction on the base stopped, ostensibly due to reports of damage to undersea coral reefs from the drilling needed for landfill. The on-again, off-again base issue once again is hanging fire, and the longer it goes on, the more trouble it will cause for U.S.-Japan relations.
The Futenma base replacement issue may seem arcane, but it is one of the more frustrating parts of dealing with democratic allies. More importantly, it goes to the heart of the U.S. Marine Corps presence in Asia. Without the Okinawa bases, the Marines argue they will have a far less effective presence, especially for dealing with unexpected crises.
First broached back in the mid-1990s, and then agreed to in 2006, the building of a replacement helicopter base at Henoko has run into constant roadblocks from Okinawan governments, buttressed by constant public opposition. The Obama administration thought that Abe’s government, which strongly supports expanding the alliance, had finally put aside years of delay, and pushed through approval for the landfill and other construction issues. Yet elections have consequences, and Okinawa’s new governor now has brought the project to a halt.
The pressure will now be on Abe to figure out how to override the governor’s authority and get the base construction back on track. The way the law works in Japan, Okinawa’s governor cannot cancel the project outright, but he is using his prerogative to halt projects that have adverse environmental side effects. Abe will either have to make some sort of end-run around the governor, in the name of national interest, or convince him (probably with some financial inducement or strong-arm tactics) to drop his opposition. Yet enough Okinawans remain steadfastly opposed to the American military presence on the island that the outcome remains in doubt.
The broader issue is one of America’s ability to work with allies to restructure its alliances to deal with a rising China and an erratic North Korea. Weakening part of our military posture in Asia may both sow doubt about Washington’s commitment to its allies (even when those problems have been caused by the allies themselves) as well as run the risk of emboldening our competitors and adversaries. Coral reefs and concrete runways may not capture our imagination, but they are one piece of an increasingly complex security puzzle in Asia.