No. 2 — January 14, 2000

 

Weekly Review

DEFENSE CHIEFS EXCHANGE VIEWS ON BASE RELOCATION, FUNDING MATTERS
--- by Barbara Wanner

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi described as "significant" the January 5 meeting in Washington between Japan Defense Agency Director General Tsutomu Kawara and Secretary of Defense William Cohen. "It is desirable [for senior U.S. and Japanese officials] to exchange frank opinions on various issues to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance," Mr. Obuchi told reporters. While defense experts on both sides of the Pacific no doubt would concur that such talks are crucial to the effective management of the bilateral security relationship, they might not describe the one-hour Kawara-Cohen meeting at the Pentagon in such glowing terms.

Tokyo and Washington remain at square one on at least two important security-related agenda items: the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' heliport functions at Futenma Air Station on Okinawa and funding to cover certain costs associated with the U.S. base presence in Japan. For the time being, neither of these disagreements risks rupturing U.S.-Japan defense cooperation. However, in view of President Clinton's stated desire to have the heliport relocation matter resolved in time for the late July meeting on Okinawa of the Group of Seven major industrial nations plus Russia, working-level negotiators will be under considerable pressure during the first half of 2000 to find solutions that address the security needs of both nations as well as domestic concerns.

The Futenma relocation issue, in particular, has been a thorn in the side of Pentagon officials for the past three years. The plan to move the heliport, currently in densely populated Ginowan, to another site on Okinawa is the centerpiece of the 1996 Special Action Committee on Okinawa report for consolidating U.S. military bases in the prefecture (see JEI Report No. 45B, December 6, 1996). In agreeing to reduce its force presence on Okinawa, though, Washington was adamant that military preparedness not be compromised. This explains the critical need to find an alternative site for the heliport, which is an important Marine Corps training facility. Notwithstanding the significance of this function to broader Japanese security interests, implementation of the heliport element of the SACO agreement has been stalled by local opposition and related tensions between Tokyo and Naha.

For much of the postwar period, island residents have resented shouldering the lion's share of the burden of hosting U.S. forces in Japan. Although Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area, it has been home for more than 50 years to about 75 percent of the American military installations on the archipelago. Tokyo's reluctance to redistribute this burden to other communities on Honshu, Hokkaido or Kyushu as well as its seeming disinterest in fostering in Japan's southernmost prefecture the sort of economic boom that other parts of the country experienced through the 1980s have angered local residents for years.

The 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen brought to a head islanders' long-simmering resentment of both the high-profile American presence in their collective backyard and the central government's unwillingness to do anything about it. This outcry — which was echoed by sympathizers throughout Japan — was the driving force behind the conclusion of the SACO accord (see JEI Report No. 35A, September 20, 1996).

Some observers were optimistic that a breakthrough might be in the offing when Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine announced last November that Nago, a small seaside town on the northern end of the main Okinawan island near Camp Schwab, would be the relocation site for the heliport (see JEI Report No. 45B, December 3, 1999). Their hopes were buoyed further by the Nago municipal assembly's December 23 passage of a resolution accepting Mr. Inamine's plan and by Nago Mayor Takeo Kishimoto's imprimatur four days later.

In keeping with a November 1998 campaign promise, however, Mr. Inamine attached certain "nonnegotiable" conditions to the plan to relocate the Futenma heliport to Nago. Specifically, the new airport would be open for use by both the U.S. military and commercial and business aircraft. The Okinawan governor further insisted that the airport eventually become the "property of prefectural residents" and that U.S. military access to the facility be limited to 15 years. In an apparent effort to squeeze more money from Tokyo, Mr. Inamine also stressed that the airport could play a key role in the economic development of Nago, which will host the G-8 summit.

The Nago mayor, in turn, conditioned his endorsement of the relocation plan to the 15-year time limit for the U.S. military's use of the dual-purpose airfield. He added other strings, such as Tokyo's assurance that steps would be taken to "minimize the adverse effects of the airport on citizens' lives and the environment" and creation of a central government-funded industrial development plan for northern Okinawa.

"Nago already hosts a vast U.S. military base [Camp Schwab], and I know many citizens are against accepting any more military facilities," Mr. Kishimoto told reporters December 27. "But I have decided to allow the relocation after considering the long history of base problems in Okinawa and various circumstances." The Nago mayor was quick to add, though, that the town would withdraw its acceptance of the heliport if any of the conditions were unmet.

In a television interview last November, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell suggested that Washington might not be averse to joint military-civilian use of the proposed Nago airport. However, his comment that the United States "doesn't like time limits imposed" on the U.S.-Japan security relationship has been interpreted in some Japanese government quarters as a statement of the White House's opposition to the prefecture's proposal to impose a 15-year deadline for military use of the facility.

Mr. Cohen's careful sidestepping of this issue during his meeting with Mr. Kawara also was construed by defense observers as a thumbs-down on the 15-year condition. The American defense chief was said only to have referred to the importance of language in the April 1996 U.S.-Japan security declaration. This groundbreaking statement, issued by Mr. Clinton and then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, said that the two countries should continue to discuss how changes in the international security situation might influence adjustments to the U.S. force structure in Japan (see JEI Report No. 16B, April 26, 1996).

Mr. Kawara's reluctance to press for negotiations with Washington on the 15-year time limit and his fence-sitting also suggest that Tokyo objects to the prefecture's tactic of pushing the envelope on SACO implementation. The defense chief reportedly acknowledged during his Pentagon meeting that the "long suffering of the [Okinawan] people and their sentiment resulting from such a plight" might influence their view on the need to limit the U.S. military's use of the Nago airfield. In his next breath, however, Mr. Kawara concurred with the U.S. view that the future international security situation is "extremely hard to predict" and should be factored into the equation. Moreover, Mr. Kawara's remark that "talks with the United States on whether to set a time limit should come after views on the issue are coordinated domestically" captures the sentiments of those American observers who have argued that Washington should not serve as a de facto arbiter between Tokyo and the prefectural government.

Messrs. Cohen and Kawara also spoke past each other on another prickly matter: Japan's plan to reduce the facilities improvement element of its host-nation support by ¥260.3 billion ($2.2 billion at ¥120=$1.00) in FY 2000 (see JEI Report No. 1B, January 7, 2000). The U.S. defense chief urged his Japanese counterpart to maintain the current spending level, portraying Japan's host-nation support as an important indicator of the strength and the mutuality of the bilateral alliance. Mr. Cohen also pointed out that the fact that Japan, of all U.S. allies, provides the most generous host-nation support continues to play well on Capitol Hill and helps to defuse trade-related anti-Japanese sentiments.

Mr. Kawara appeared unmoved, replying that "it is important to win taxpayers' understanding on this issue." In 1978, under what is now called the Special Measures Agreement, Japan began to assume more of the costs associated with basing U.S. forces in the country, such as the salaries of Japanese nationals employed at American bases, utilities and expenses related to the internal relocation of U.S. troops. At the time, Japanese officials referred to the ballooning of host-nation support as the "benevolent sympathy budget" because the U.S. economy then was suffering under the weight of burgeoning budget deficits while Japan was in the midst of its meteoric economic rise.

Now, of course, Japan is saddled with huge government deficits and debts and uncertain growth prospects and the United States is experiencing an unprecedented boom. This economic reversal makes it difficult for Tokyo to justify the continued expansion of the "benevolent sympathy budget" to a worried constituency, Mr. Kawara was said to have cautioned Mr. Cohen.

One of the few things on which the two defense chiefs could agree was to begin negotiations in the near future on a new five-year Special Measures Agreement. The current pact, covering FY 1996 through FY 2000, will expire March 31, 2001. Working-level officials will be faced with the unenviable challenge of developing an approach that addresses the budget- and alliance-related concerns of taxpayers in both countries.

Another sore spot in the hour-long meeting concerned Tokyo's seeming inability to address in a timely manner serious environmental problems at the U.S. base in Atsugi, Kanagawa prefecture. A joint study undertaken by American and Japanese environmental experts last summer found that a neighboring industrial incinerator was pumping into the atmosphere around the Atsugi base the highest levels of dioxins ever recorded in Japan. Tokyo has pledged to implement a cleanup plan by March 2000. Mr. Cohen apparently sought to turn up the heat on the issue to ensure that the government makes good on its promise.

Although much of the meeting was devoted to base-related issues, Messrs. Cohen and Kawara managed to squeeze in a discussion of regional security issues. They concurred on the importance of close cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea in dealing with North Korea. They also discussed the confidence-building value of expanded military exchanges with the People's Republic of China.

In addition, Messrs. Cohen and Kawara explored the status of bilateral planning under the 1997 revised U.S.-Japan defense operational guidelines. The U.S. side reportedly expressed its hope that agencies other than JDA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — such as the Ministry of Transport — would become involved in the planning process to ensure a timely and effective response should an emergency occur in areas surrounding Japan that would necessitate Self-Defense Forces support for U.S. forces.

All in all, the talks between the Pentagon head and his JDA counterpart were more notable for highlighting the issues that will preoccupy working-level officials in the coming months than for revealing progress on these long-stalled matters. The overriding desire of the Obuchi government to host a successful G-8 summit in Okinawa no doubt will provide the main impetus for what assuredly will be intensified discussions between Tokyo and Naha. But given the gap between them, no one is willing to speculate whether a compromise can be achieved by late July that is acceptable to the United States.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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