Gates rules out renegotiation

The DPJ has pushed on Futenma — and the Obama administration, in the guise of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has pushed back.

Gates, visiting Japan on a tour through Asia, delivered an unambiguous message to the Hatoyama government that the US government is not interested in renegotiating the bilateral agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan. As he said in a joint press conference with Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi:

Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa.

Our view is this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on.

We are — feel strongly that this is a complex agreement, negotiated over a period of many years. It is interlocking — (inaudible) – immensely complicated and counterproductive. We have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe that they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable.

I emphasized the paragraph above because I think it’s probably the most honest statement of the US position at this point. The administration has enough problems on its hands that it has little interest in renegotiating what it sees as a done deal — signed by foreign ministers and everything — after years of hard work. I can understand the US position: Futenma has been a source of unpleasantness for a long enough time that the US government just wants the issue off the agenda.

But, on the other hand, the concerns of the new government and the people of Okinawa cannot be tossed aside simply because the US government is impatient. It is too convenient for the US government to say that it signed an agreement with the LDP and therefore the DPJ should just accept the agreement and move on — as if the transition from the LDP to the DPJ was a routine matter. I continue to find it perplexing that US officials expect that the DPJ would take power and attempt to change everything but the alliance, which was, after all, an integral piece of the 1955 system. The US may not view the alliance that way, but to pretend that the US was not a pillar propping up the LDP system for years, to pretend that the US-Japan alliance is an alliance like any other, is to be willfully insensitive to history. As much as Gates and the Obama administration would like to turn the page, their Japanese counterparts — the first government in a half-century based on a parliamentary majority for a party other than the LDP — cannot simply accept what it views as the product of the “abnormal” US-LDP alliance.

The Hatoyama government has already softened its stance on Futenma considerably by backing away from the position that the Futenma replacement facility should be outside of Okinawa. Is the Hatoyama government in a hopeless position? Gates may have been entirely sincere in the message he delivered in Tokyo, but it also is not a bad bargaining stance either. If ratcheting up pressure on the new government forces it to drop the issue — perhaps with a minor concession like this — the US will have gotten its way with little effort expended. But I doubt that the government will back down easily, certainly not without compensation. The domestic politics of the issue do not favor backing down: its coalition partners, the SDPJ in particular, want Futenma out of Okinawa, the DPJ is largely united against the current agreement, and the Okinawan people and their representatives are unhappy with the current agreement. Were it to back down now that it has put Futenma at the top of its agenda in advance of President Obama’s visit next month, the Hatoyama government’s public approval rating would probably suffer. And, beyond the government’s interests, it should be stressed that the prime minister and his ministers actually object to the substance of the current agreement and want it changed and are willing to exhaust political capital to do so (and to show that a DPJ-led government is capable of standing up to the US).

If the Hatoyama government does not back down, what options are available to the Obama administration that won’t make Futenma a bigger problem than it already is? If the administration simply refuses to talk about Futenma and then blames the agreement’s failure on the Hatoyama government, how can it expect a constructive relationship with the new government on other issues? Would the Obama administration contemplate abandoning Futenma unilaterally and leaving the Japanese government to clean up after the Marines? I doubt that the situation will come to any of these scenarios. The US has little to gain by letting the issue fester — and, ironically, despite Gates’s desire to “move on,” rejecting the Hatoyama government’s desire to renegotiate outright may be the surest way to guarantee that the allies will be unable to move beyond the question of what to do about Futenma and US forces in Okinawa.

The US ought to acknowledge that the Hatoyama government has actually shown itself to be relatively flexible on the question of Futenma when compared with earlier DPJ statements. The Obama administration must recognize that to simply say no to a Hatoyama government that is desperate to find a solution — that shares Gates’s desire to move on — is to make it harder for the US and Japan to turn their attention to other, more important issues. For the sake of both countries I hope that Gates’s position is not the Obama administration’s final position.

And as for the Hatoyama government? Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya has a month until President Obama visits Japan. He should at the very least be ready to provide some idea of what concessions will be necessary to get the Japanese government to back away from more comprehensive revisions, however difficult it may be do so.

However tetchy the relationship looks at the moment, this is not a crisis for the alliance, but rather the DPJ simply doing what it said it was going to do: speak honestly to the US. When was the last time, after all, that a meeting of senior US and Japanese officials carried even a whiff of public controversy? As Ozawa Ichiro reportedly said in a meeting with US Ambassador John Roos, “I want the US to speak frankly about any problems, just as I think that Japan’s DPJ government should speak directly to the US.”

11 thoughts on “Gates rules out renegotiation

  1. \”in the guise of\” Gates? :-)It's not as if the Secretary of Defense is a cleverly disguised proxy for the administration whose defense department he's in charge of!


  2. I checked this one in the dictionary when writing. I'm using it in the sense of \”general external appearance,\” as in the Obama administration embodied in this instance in the form of the defense secretary. Perhaps an unusual choice of word.


  3. Anonymous

    Perhaps there is a more deep rooted concern by the US. The Kyrgyz­stan Govt. has already booted out the US.If the DJP stand up for themselves and japan, which i hope it does, there will be even less presence by the US, in the Asia/Russia region. As such the US may start to face similar calls to \”get out and relocate\” from other \”unhappy\” and \”unequal\” agreements by other allies.


  4. I'm not sure how much leverage the Hatoyama administration has on the US here. The first priority has to be to get the base out of Futenma, because the town has grown too large around the base, and the issues are piling up.But the current agreement took something like 15 years to negotiate. If the DPJ throws that out, who knows how long it will take to get a new agreement? If the US just stonewalls, pressure will mount on the DPJ to accept the existing agreement.


  5. Anonymous

    Could it be that the reason Gates is so keen on sticking to this agreement is that it would be an exceptionally good deal for the US? On the financial side alone, in return for moving troops from one base to another, the US was going to receive >£6 billion from the Japanese taxpayer! Plus the US troops would still be in Okinawa, so there would be no military downside either, and no reflection of the declining need for the US troops to be there in the first place, now that Japan is capable of organizing its own defense forces without invading Asian neighbors. I also thought Gates's language badly judged, as it seemed to support the DPJ's position that the current Japan-US relationship is unequal. My guess is that had he used the same language or approach (e.g. giving an allied PM one month to succumb or else) even in countries as friendly as the UK or Australia, public opinion would be outraged.


  6. When the DJP pushed on Futenma, did they often even an outline of an alternative solution? Gates' response seems to make perfect sense if what was put on the table was just the idea of studying or discussing an alternative.


  7. Anonymous

    I am new here. What is the deal between US and JP on this issue? I mean legally, why can't Japanese just get US military out of their soil?


  8. @ Anon 2:32If the Japanese wanted to get the US out of Japan, thats one thing and fairly easily done. (Albeit with catastrophic consequences for the alliance and the region)Thats not what the Japanese want though. They want to rearrange the disposition of US forces within Japan, which imposes a big burden on the Americans who have to leave existing bases, develop and/or expand existing bases and engage in a very large logistical exercise (which is why the Japanese Government is ponying up money to help). Since the existing agreement took years to negotiate and changing it would also require the Americans to go back into battle with their Congress (since this is one piece in a much larger realignment), this talk about changing the Futenma base relocation plans is about as pleasant for the US as stepping in dog droppings.


  9. PaxAmericana

    Nathan,It wouldn't be that hard to go back to Congress, would it? Couldn't they just do what the LDP did and ram it through?Seriously, though, are there really that many issues in the US Congress with renegotiating the deal?


  10. If the US Administration has to go back to Congress to renegotiate something that was already a signed deal under the previous Administration, the result will be very unpleasant.There is only so much political capital to go around and with Health Care and Afghanistan already on their plate and much acrimony already built up… Even with a nominally Democratic-held Congress, that's a tall order.Unfortunately, I doubt they could ram it through. It is worth remembering that unlike Prime Ministers in Parliamentary systems, Presidents are not in fact heads of their Party or their party's Congressmembers or Senators. He cannot just run roughshod over them.I don't mean to say they wouldn't get it through, but it would get rough, and the US Administration does not want to be wasting influence and favours on an issue like this when they are trying to manage Health Care Reform and Afghanistan.


  11. PaxAmericana

    Nathan,Don't your arguments apply to Hatoyama as well? He would prefer to not waste political capital on something that is quite unpopular with elements of his coalition. The original deal was not something the DPJ signed off on, as I recall. If, indeed, they were even consulted. In fact, they were largely against it, unless I'm mistaken.


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