Issue of US base a 'ticking time bomb' for Japanese PM

 

JAPANESE PRIME minister Yukio Hatoyama has apologised to the people of a small Japanese island for sparking rumours that they could be forced to host a huge US military heliport.

Mr Hatoyama said in parliament yesterday that he was “very sorry for causing concern” to Tokunoshima Island, after more than half its population of 28,000 came out last weekend to protest against such a base.

The humiliating mea culpa is the latest episode in an issue that has become political kryptonite in the prime minister’s seven-month-old government – and which may well cause his downfall this summer.

Mr Hatoyama said last month that he would “risk his [political] life” to solve one of Japan’s most vexing foreign-policy problems – reducing the huge US military burden on Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa.

Some 1,500km from Tokyo, Okinawa is home to about three-quarters of all US military facilities and personnel in Japan, including more than 30,000 troops and some of the busiest air bases in Asia. Before taking office, Mr Hatoyama openly questioned the need for such a large military presence, and promised to shift Futenma air base, which squats in the middle of crowded Ginowan city, out of the prefecture.

Yesterday he said this goal remained “unchanged”. But as a self-imposed deadline of May 31st looms, it looks increasingly likely that Mr Hatoyama has painted himself into a corner. The liberal Asahi newspaper this week called the deadline a “ticking time bomb” for the government.

The prime minister faces an impossible choice: angering Washington and facing the wrath of his conservative enemies by telling the US to find another host (the Pacific island of Guam is one popular option), or angering Okinawa and fatally tarnishing his credibility by being seen to cave in under US pressure.

Washington has made clear it is growing irritated by what Japan’s opposition Liberal Democrats (LDP) call the government’s “dithering”. Last week, US president Barack Obama reportedly questioned Mr Hatoyama’s ability to follow through on a promise he made to resolve the base issue.

Mr Obama’s government is demanding that Tokyo honour a 2006 agreement to replace Futenma with a giant seaport, including an 1,800m runway, off Okinawa’s northern coast near the town of Nago – all paid for by Japan. In January, Nago voters gave their verdict on the row when they elected the virulently anti-base Susumu Inamine as mayor.

In desperation, Mr Hatoyama’s government has since been casting around for alternative sites in the many tiny, sparsely populated islands that dot the Pacific Ocean around Okinawa.

This week, the mayors of three towns on Tokunoshima – about 200km north of Okinawa – revealed that they had been approached by Tokyo to see whether they were amenable to a solution. They were not, and when news of the plan leaked angry citizens staged the biggest protest in the history of the island.

Adding to Mr Hatoyama’s woes is his outspoken defence minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, who this week openly questioned moving the base to Tokunoshima. “It has become even clearer that transferring [the Futenma facility] to any location other than Okinawa is an extremely tough thing to do,” he said yesterday.

The prime minister’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, have threatened to pull out if he fails to keep his promise to move the base elsewhere.

With just over a month to go before his decision, Mr Hatoyama’s enemies are already measuring his political coffin.

Lawmakers from Mr Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan are being anonymously quoted in the press saying that with a general election due this summer, he may now be a liability. One politician told the Asahi Shimbunnewspaper that “the cabinet will have to resign en masse” if May 31st passes with no solution.

Meanwhile, Okinawa plans another anti-base rally this weekend – probably the biggest yet. And the conservative press, which views the prime minister as a liberal upstart, is loudly condemning his failure to protect what the Yomiurinewspaper calls “the US deterrent”.

Little wonder that the normally unflappable leader has recently shown signs of irritability.

“As the person who will be going through tough negotiations with the US, I do not have any thoughts about failing to reach an agreement,” Mr Hatoyama said recently. “I will risk my life to get results.”