PM Noda yesterday returned to Tokyo from his first foreign diplomatic foray – at the UN in New York. There he addressed the general Assembly – or what was left of it, since he had the bad luck of speaking after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, for whose plea for Palestinian statehood and independent a standing room only audience of delegates had assembled, but then immediately afterward dispersed, leaving the hall fairly empty.
A pity, perhaps, because for Japan, and PM Noda, the appearance and speech had an important purpose, which was to officially thank the “international community” for the assistance to and sympathy for Japan following the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima nuclear accident disasters. Also, it was an occasion – not to be missed – for Japan to pledge to fully and continuously study the lessons learned from Fukushima, and to be a global leader in propagating safe use of nuclear power. Finally, it was a chance for Noda to appear on a “world stage,” even if it was mostly cameras from Japanese TV networks recording the event. By all accounts, in all above respects, the UN speech was a success.
Of course the more meaningful and substantive part of Noda’s visit was separate meetings with foreign counterparts, first and foremost with President Obama. Still, how much “substance” can be exchanged in 30 minutes, including translation time, is a question. At one level, the meeting with Obama was simply an introduction – for Obama, the fourth of a new Japanese prime minister. The seeming annual revolving door for Japanese PMs has become an embarrassment in international situations like this. The subject is a sensitive one in Japan, admitted by television commentators and the press, who inevitably through pathetically and impotently look for possible slights and snubs. In both the limited time of the one-on-one meeting, and its content, as well as stalling on an official visit to Washington, these are close to what the Obama administration delivered.
Four issues were raised by President Obama during the meeting. The last and least important was timely Japanese accession to the Hague treaty on treatment of children of international marriages in the event of divorce. Before that, appropriately, Obama complained about Japan’s continuing restrictions – dating from 2003 – on US beef imports, following an outbreak in the US of mad cow disease (BSE). The complete ban implemented in December 2003 has been lifted, but there are many remaining barriers and restrictions. Obama asked for “progress” toward further deregulation. The second issue was the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, in which Obama said he would “welcome” Japan.
Raised first, and no doubt the main issue between the Japan and the US now, was Futenma Marine base relocation. Obama rather brusquely told the new PM that “time for a decision is near.” To which Noda could only nod acknowledgement. After seemingly endless appeals, debates, and tribute-bearing missions by the national government officials to Okinawa, trying to coax the governor into agreement to go ahead with construction of a new runway on reclaimed seabed near Camp Schwab, and with all other options abandoned, the governor has not yet given permission to begin landfill work.
There is much more to this, including US and Japanese budgetary politics. The costs of the new base will largely be borne by Japan. Part of deal is deployment of 8,000 marines to Guam, which would be a US expense. It seems that this item is being trimmed by congressional Pentagon budget-cutters. Could the transfer be cancelled, or is this a negotiating gambit to get Japan to move? The view in Japan is that US budget politics could scuttle the move, even while Japan remains deadlocked. And then there is Japan’s own budget mess.
The September 23 Nihon Keisai Shimbun editorial expresses these concerns. The Nikkei sees a real risk of time running out and the entire relocation plan unraveling. The result would be the base remaining in a populated area. Also, the various subsidies and incentives being offered to Okinawa, not least the relocation of the 8,000 marines to Guam, would be foregone – the worst possible result for everyone. The Nikkei seconds President Obama’s call for a timely, and positive, decision.
But is the Futenma base relocation the real issue, or is it the Japan-US defense alliance itself? This, I submit, is the question. In East Asia today we are witnessing a “balance of power” geo-strategic dynamic such as has not been seen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. For a balance of power to work – i.e., to ensure peace – there must be both a balance, and the credible readiness of the adversaries if necessary to use military force. I don’t see the match between this theory and the financial and economic, not to say political and military, even social realities of the US or Japan.
The Japan-US alliance may exist in name, in organisational charts and contingency plans. But in terms of the will of its principals to give it effect, to actually use it, I have profound doubts. And I think my doubts are shared by most people in Japan, including those responsible in government. Is this not what is preventing a decision on Futenma? Does it not, indeed, render the decision irrelevant?