GUAM – Unlike his predecessors in the last two years, Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears ready to try the hardball approach with Okinawa, suggesting the stalemate over a controversial U.S. Marine air base has come down to one choice: either it moves further north within Okinawa to Henoko Bay or it stays at Futenma permanently.
“People in Okinawa strongly hope to avoid the Futenma base becoming permanent,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported Mr. Noda as saying at a press conference Friday in New York, only days after his first meeting with President Obama, on the sidelines of United Nations meetings.
Okinawans and their governor want the facility ejected from their island entirely, and Tokyo politicians have used the issue to unseat two prime ministers in the last two years, a source of growing frustration for the Obama administration. “Time for a decision is near,” Mr. Obama said in his meeting with Mr. Noda.
Even as Pentagon spending and the U.S.-Japan troop realignment plan have lately come under intense scrutiny in Washington, Mr. Obama asserted that he stood firmly in support of the security accord, which calls for a Futenma replacement facility and shrinking the military population on Okinawa, in part by moving some troops to Guam.
Mr. Noda’s response seemed to signal that he would not be tone deaf to the President’s resolve. “I’ll do my utmost to explain the government’s stance [to the Okinawans],” he said at the press conference.
Tokyo’s revolving-door leadership has pushed the Futenma issue past its honeymoon period in America, where a national debt crisis is putting a squeeze on Pentagon spending and war-weary voters have little stomach for more military spending.
By emphasizing the “permanent” consequences of derailing the move to Henoko, Mr. Noda seems ready to cast Okinawan opposition as a gamble. Continued deadlock would mean the air base stays permanently at Futenma and 8,600 Futenma-based Marines would not be transferred to Guam, an ultimatum issued by the Pentagon on numerous occasions previously. This would be an unfortunate outcome as Okinawans have long decried the dangers and pollution caused by Marine flight operations in that densely populated town, and the island already hosts more than its fair share of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
Mr. Noda and his predecessors have previously relied on gentle persuasion, avoiding hardball ultimatums — instead offering the island economic development incentives and high level ministerial visits aimed at consensus building.
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