Okinawa vote a blow to Japan-US ties - analysts

2014-11-17 13:20

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Tokyo - Voters in Okinawa have thrown a spanner into Japan's relations with the United States after electing a governor who wants the American military to downsize its presence at a time of alarm over China's territorial ambitions.

Takeshi Onaga rode a wave of anti-US resentment to pummel two-term incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima in a weekend poll widely seen as a referendum on the deal he struck to move an American airbase from a crowded city centre to a pristine bit of coast.

While most Japanese value the protection the US military alliance gives them, especially in the context of Beijing's growing assertiveness in its numerous regional disputes, a sizable proportion of Okinawans want them to leave the island.

"I will firmly implement my campaign pledge of seeking to remove the Futenma airbase outside Okinawa and never allow a new base in Henoko," Onaga said, referring to the agreed site of the proposed relocation.

Significant challenges

Around half of the 47 000 US servicemen stationed in Japan as part of a security treaty are based in Okinawa, a once-independent kingdom that was annexed in the 19th century and fell under US control from 1945 to 1972.

The island chain is strategically vital for the US, giving it a hefty foothold in the western Pacific, which has become increasingly important as China's military ambitions have burgeoned.

Neither Washington nor Tokyo, which depends heavily on the US for protection, can afford to dramatically reduce the American military presence there.

But, says Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor emeritus of Tokyo University, the voters' rejection of a December 2013 breakthrough that looked set to finalise the Futenma move posed "significant challenges" for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"It could delay the implementation of the plan for years ahead," Yamamoto said.

"As protest activities may intensify... we may see bloodshed if the government chooses to build the new base forcibly, which is legally possible," he said.

Bogged down

The shuttering of Futenma and the opening of a replacement facility at Nago, 50km away, was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to calm local anger after the gang rape by servicemen of a schoolgirl.

But it has been bogged down ever since with local politicians blocking the move in a bid to reduce the American footprint.

At the end of last year, Nakaima agreed to drop his opposition in exchange for a hefty annual cash injection to the local economy.

Many islanders saw this as a betrayal, and on Sunday voted around 3:2 in favour of challenger Onaga.

Tetsuo Kotani, senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, warned the result "could influence Japan-US relations in a broader sense".

The vote would not result in an immediate change in the current relocation plan, "but if it requires any amendments, then the governor's administrative power could be an obstacle", he said.

Voices of concern

"Already voices of concern over the feasibility of the plan are rising from among intellectuals in the United States, although people inside the US government are sticking to the current plan," Kotani said.

Washington has said a broader realignment of US forces in Japan is to ensure their presence remains "politically sustainable".

Hideki Uemura, professor of international politics at Ryutsu Keizai University in Tokyo, said "Onaga's victory is a significant blow to the central government" because the governor holds an important card - power of veto over necessary landfill permits.

If Onaga exercises that power, it leaves Abe with two equally unpalatable options: overruling a locally-elected official or going back to the drawing board on the relocation plan.

Abe is clearly hoping that it will not come to that.

The current plan is "the only solution considering the need [to maintain] the deterrence capacity of the US forces and eliminate danger at Futenma," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday.

"We will solidly implement the plan in accordance with laws."

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