WASHINGTON, TOKYO REMAIN APART ON KEY
--- by Barbara Wanner
The victory of pro-sovereignty candidate Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan's March 18 presidential election in defiance of People's Republic of China Premier Zhu Rongji's saber-rattling threat to Taiwanese voters only days before understandably has heightened concerns about military stability in the Asian Pacific. Secretary of Defense William Cohen's 10-day tour through East Asia, which began March 8 and included stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, ostensibly was aimed at conveying Washington's continued commitment to ensuring peace in the region through its forward deployment of 100,000 troops.
Mr. Cohen's March 15-17 meetings with top Japanese officials revealed, however, both progress and continuing deadlock on key issues in a bilateral security relationship that many regard as critical to deterring provocative behavior by China or any other country. Some regional observers apparently are concerned that the United States and Japan have become so preoccupied with their points of disagreement that they have failed to devote sufficient time to working out a coordinated approach to developments in Japan's backyard.
Defense insiders dispute this reading of Mr. Cohen's March 16 meetings with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Japan Defense Agency Director General Tsutomu Kawara. In particular, they point to his postmeeting comment to the press that the U.S.-Japan alliance "has never been so critical and has never been so close." Nevertheless, the fact that the two nations have remained at square one for the past three months concerning the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps heliport on Okinawa (see JEI Report No. 4A, January 28, 2000) and on Tokyo's call to reduce its financial support for in-country U.S. military facilities (see JEI Report No. 4B, January 28, 2000) suggests a troubled outlook for bilateral defense cooperation.
On the plus side, though, Mr. Cohen and top Japanese officials agreed on the return to Japan of the radar system at Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa on the condition that the American military's operational requirements are met. When the United States handed Okinawa over to Japan in 1972, the two governments agreed that the U.S. military would "provisionally control" aircraft radar operations in the prefecture. Since last November, however, when problems with the Kadena Air Base system caused trouble for some commercial flights, Tokyo has become more insistent that Washington return air traffic control responsibilities to Okinawan authorities in a timely manner. Given the proximity of the Naha Airport and the Kadena Air Base, the U.S. military facility now handles both commercial and military takeoffs and landings. Mr. Cohen was not specific about the nature of the U.S. military's requirements, saying that those details should be ironed out by a joint civilian aviation panel.
The other breakthrough, according to observers, was Tokyo's agreement to assume the costs associated with what has been called "the Navy's biggest headache in Japan" hazardous air pollution at a U.S. naval base in Kanagawa prefecture. For the past 10 years, the Pentagon has complained about the health problems of personnel stationed at Atsugi Naval Station caused by carcinogenic dioxins released from the waste incinerators of a nearby Japanese company. Tokyo had pledged to implement a cleanup plan by March 2000. To ensure that the government makes good on its promise, Mr. Cohen began turning up the heat on this issue when he met with Mr. Kawara this past January in Washington (see JEI Report No. 2B, January 14, 2000).
At a joint press conference following their March 16 meeting, the Japanese defense chief outlined Tokyo's planned measures to facilitate the cleanup. Specifically, the government will foot the bill for the immediate installation of filters in two of the three health-endangering incinerators; the third burning facility will be so equipped in April. In addition, Tokyo will begin construction shortly on a 330-foot smokestack at the site in order to vent incinerator discharges higher in the atmosphere. It also will pay for temporary housing for U.S. Navy personnel and their dependents who want to move away from the area affected by the pollution, Mr. Kawara said.
Mr. Cohen applauded the initiative, saying that the United States "look[s] forward to seeing full implementation of the [Atsugi] proposals." He further cited Tokyo's response to the pollution problem as "another example of the close cooperation that we maintain with the government of Japan and an indication of the strength of our relationship that we can deal with this matter in the manner that we have."
Concerning the Okinawan heliport relocation problem and Japan's maintenance of host-nation support at the FY 1999 level of nearly ¥525 billion ($4.8 billion at ¥110=$1.00), however, the two sides simply agreed to "maintain close consultations." On the former issue, the December 1996 report of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa called for the relocation of the heliport at the Futenma Air Station to elsewhere in the prefecture or some other place in the country as part of a comprehensive U.S. base consolidation plan. For the past three-plus years, however, Tokyo has been unable to implement this proviso due to strong opposition from people living near potential relocation sites.
The Okinawan prefectural government's latest plan is to move the Futenma heliport to a dual-purpose airport that will be constructed near Nago on the northern end of the main Okinawan island. This initiative is acceptable to the Pentagon. However, local politicians insist that a 15-year limit be placed on the U.S. military's use of the proposed facility. Such a stipulation was critical to winning support for the new airport at a time when Okinawans have grown increasingly weary of bearing the lion's share of the burden of hosting American forces in Japan.
Although Mr. Cohen had hinted during his January meeting with Mr. Kawara that Washington would not accept the 15-year limit, he flatly rejected this proposal during a March 17 appearance before the Japan National Press Club. "Security needs are determined by circumstances and not by any artificial limitations," he said. The U.S. defense chief added that the two nations articulated this view in the security declaration adopted in April 1996 by President Clinton and then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Mr. Cohen stressed that the four-year-old accord calls on the United States and Japan to "always review the circumstances and discuss our security relationship in the context of existing threats. I would assume [that] the Japanese people also would support such a policy that we define the relationship by the nature of the threat that exists."
The Japanese government basically has placed itself in a bind by promising the nation's southernmost prefecture that it would "seriously consider" the 15-year limit proposal and take it up in consultations with the United States. Tokyo made this promise as part of a cabinet decision last December to earmark funds for the dual-purpose airport near Nago. From Washington's viewpoint, however, the White House should not be placed in a position where it is the de facto broker of what essentially is a disagreement between the central and local governments.
On host-nation support, Mr. Cohen reiterated the view that he had expressed in his January talks with Mr. Kawara in Washington as well as the opinion offered by a high-level American delegation that visited Tokyo in mid-February (see JEI Report No. 8B, February 25, 2000). On both occasions, U.S. officials stressed that Congress would object to funding cutbacks by the Japanese government. The United States "bears the majority of costs involved in maintaining a significant presence through the Asian Pacific region," the Department of Defense secretary said at the March 17 Japan National Press Club briefing. "It will be very difficult for me to go before the Congress and request large amounts of increases É [i]f there is a perception that our allies are reducing their commitments." Mr. Cohen urged his audience not to view host-nation support in narrow economic terms. "This is a strategic issue between Japan and the United States," he emphasized.
In 1978, under what now is called the Special Measures Agreement, the Japanese government began to assume responsibility for the costs of Japanese nationals employed at U.S. bases, utilities and expenses related to the in-country relocation of American armed forces. Tokyo took on these expenditures at a time when the U.S. budget deficit was starting to widen and Japan's finances still were relatively healthy. But as the two nations begin negotiations on a new SMA (the current agreement expires March 31, 2001), their budget positions are reversed. Japanese officials have argued that a continuation of host-nation support at the current level would be politically untenable given taxpayers' anxieties about the country's economic outlook and the surge in the public debt.
Mr. Kono reportedly said that it would "help the public's understanding significantly" if the U.S. side were willing to streamline base-related spending. According to some reports, American officials indicated that Washington is ready to study various cost-reduction approaches if that would help Tokyo garner firmer backing for continuing host-nation support at the FY 1999 level. All in all, though, working-level officials on both sides of the Pacific will be challenged on the heliport relocation issue and the host-nation support question in the weeks and months to come. The fact that Mr. Clinton has said that he would like to have these matters resolved in time for the July 21-23 summit of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations plus Russia on Okinawa no doubt will create a pressure-packed negotiating environment.