Base Maneuvers

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In the face of multiple demonstrations drawing thousands of protesters on Okinawa and nearby Tokunoshima, the Obama administration has demanded that the 2006 Futenma accord remain not only unaltered but also expanded, to allow for new facilities on Okinawa.

The accord states, among other things, that the United States will transfer 8,000 marines to Guam by the end of 2014. But newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose party has been out of power for decades, repeatedly pledged to have the U.S. base facilities transferred out of Okinawa if not out of Japan entirely. He first vowed to take care of this issue by the end of 2009. When that didn’t happen, he set a new deadline: May 31, 2010. When it became clear that Hatoyama could not meet this deadline and have his way, he flew to Okinawa, where locals held signs that read “Anger,” and he announced that the Futenma base would change locations but would remain on the island.

Bowing to U.S. pressure, Hatoyama, who was once purported to have staked his life on moving the base off the island, recently claimed that his views have changed. He said that gradually he came to appreciate the U.S. Marines for deterring military conflicts in the region.

If the United States withdrew all of its marines from Okinawa, the political dynamics of the region would not change. China would still dispatch submarines and other warships into waters near Okinawa, as China has done despite the U.S. military presence. North Korea would continue to lob missiles over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, as North Korea has done despite the U.S. military presence. The U.S. military doesn’t deter so much as provoke warfare in Asia.

Now is not the time to provoke China, the sleeping giant, or to give it a reason to ally with its restless neighbor, North Korea. Yet the U.S. presence in Okinawa has made both China and North Korea more than a little suspicious about U.S. intentions.

Japan can fend for itself, despite Article 9 of the Japanese constitution — which forbids the threat or use of Japanese military force — if only because Japan’s self-defense forces could one day become a true military. Some “conservatives” in the Liberal Democratic Party have pushed for amending Article 9 and for creating a conventional army, and this could happen. The threat of Japanese retaliation is enough to deter regional conflict. Rumors have it that Japan could go nuclear in less than 40 days. True or not, these rumors make other Asian countries hesitant to meddle with the country that has the second strongest economy in the world.

Hatoyama wants (or recently used to want) Japan to fend for itself. Okinawans want the U.S. base off their island. Tokunoshimans don’t want the U.S. base transferred to their island. It seems that no place, save for Tinian, a small island that’s part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, wants to host the U.S. troops currently stationed in Okinawa. So why isn’t Tinian the top option for the Obama administration? And why not accelerate the process of troop withdrawal to Guam? Why would Obama insist on maintaining troop presence in Okinawa despite the option to relocate to a nearby island on U.S. soil, an island whose legislators have gone so far as to lobby to host the troops? Disturbing explanations come to mind — anything from U.S. preparations against North Korea, which recently sank a South Korean submarine, to good-old-fashioned hegemony.

Hatoyama and his party will soon lose power in Japan, in large part because of the Futenma base dispute. Obama has more or less guaranteed Hatoyama’s political demise. Let’s hope that Obama won’t force too many foreign leaders out of office. That might taint his saintly image.

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