Tokyo on Tuesday shrugged off heavy US pressure for speedy implementation of a deal to relocate one of the military bases on Okinawa island, in a response certain to anger Washington and fuel worries about the loyalties of Japan’s new ruling Democratic party.
The decade-old plan to move the Futenma Marine Corps air base from the centre of a busy city to scenic Henoko Bay in northern Okinawa has become a lightning rod for friction since the DPJ’s election victory in August over Japan’s long-ruling and pro-US Liberal Democratic party.
Barack Obama, US president, has personally pushed for “expeditious” action to implement the move, which was agreed between previous administrations.
However, Yukio Hatoyama, the prime minister, stressed the importance of considering opinion in Okinawa – where the move is deeply unpopular – and insisted that an immediate decision on the relocation plan would “lead nowhere”.
“We want to explore other sites than Henoko,” Mr Hatoyama said on Tuesday. “My understanding is that several months are likely to be needed.”
Analysts say the US is unlikely to return to the kind of brusque public diplomacy practised by Robert Gates, US defence secretary, in October, when he told DPJ leaders it was “time to move on” on the issue. But US officials insist there can be no revisiting the relocation deal – and that delaying or scrapping it will also halt work on related plans intended to ease the burden of the US forces on Okinawa.
With key DPJ leaders, including the foreign and defence ministers, favouring the move, observers said Mr Hatoyama’s decision reflected a determination to avoid upsetting the small Social Democratic party, a leftwing junior coalition partner that insists the base move off Okinawa.
Mizuho Fukushima, SDP head, said she was “very glad” that there had been no “hasty decision”.
However, the opposition LDP seized on the postponement as a further sign of Mr Hatoyama’s indecision and lack of leadership. The prime minister has insisted he will make the final call on the issue but has repeatedly wavered on when he would do so.
“He is just showing a nice face to everybody and putting things off,” said Shigeru Ishiba chairman of the LDP’s policy research council.
The government made clear that the move to Henoko remained a possibility, after a meeting of coalition party leaders and ministers avoided formal suspension of the planned move by approving the inclusion of preparatory spending in the draft budget for next year.
Regional neighbours are watching closely for signs that the election of the Democratic party will lead to a weakening of Japan’s security ties with the US.
Speaking in Tokyo on Tuesday, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive party, said the US-Japan military alliance was vital to regional security. He said: “I hope the issue of the marine base – wherever it is – will not adversely affect the security arrangements.”
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