Q+A-Japan PM tries to solve US base feud as poll nears

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By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, May 23 (BestGrowthStock) – Japanese Prime Minister Yukio
Hatoyama on Sunday sought local understanding for a U.S.-Japan
plan to keep a controversial U.S. Marine airbase on Okinawa,
but the governor of the island said accepting the plan was
tough. [ID:nTOE64M00D]

The feud has distracted Washington and Tokyo as the close
allies try to cope with an unpredictable North Korea and a
rising China, while voter perception that Prime Minister Yukio
Hatoyama has mishandled the issue is eroding support before a
mid-year election his party needs to win to avoid policy
paralysis.

Following are some questions and answers about the issue:

WHY HAS THIS DISPUTE COME TO A HEAD NOW?

In the election that swept his Democratic Party of Japan
(DPJ) to power last year, Hatoyama raised hopes on the southern
island of Okinawa that the Marines’ Futenma airbase could be
moved elsewhere, despite a 2006 deal to shift it to a less
crowded site on Okinawa, host to about half the 49,000 U.S.
military personnel in Japan.

Hatoyama has set an end-of-May deadline for resolving the
issue, and said he would stake his job on meeting it.

But with no viable alternative in sight, Hatoyama changed
tack, saying some Marines would have to stay in Okinawa to
deter threats, a shift that outraged many Okinawans and upset a
small ruling coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party
(SDP).

The Democrats have also pledged to take a diplomatic stance
more independent of Washington, but talks on revamping the
50-year-old alliance have been snarled by the Futenma feud.

CAN HATOYAMA STAY ON AFTER DEADLINE?

Hatoyama has been trying to redefine what “resolving” the
row means and appears to be putting priority on an agreement
with the United States.

On Sunday, he told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima that
he had concluded the airbase should be shifted to the Henoko
area of the northern Okinawan city of Nago, largely in line
with the 2006 deal.

That will outrage many Okinawans, irk the DPJ’s coalition
partner and leave many voters wondering what the fuss was
about.

The tiny Social Democratic Party’s votes are no longer
needed to pass bills smoothly in parliament after some upper
house lawmakers switched sides, but a rift in the coalition
ahead of an upper house election expected on July 11 would be
ill-timed.

Analysts say Hatoyama will likely stay on despite the fuss,
partly because the Democrats had criticised two predecessors
from the rival Liberal Democratic Party for quitting after only
a year and because time is short before the upper house poll.

The dispute seems unlikely to spill over into trade and
investment ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
Trade between the United States and Japan amounted to 14.2
trillion yen ($157.8 billion) in 2009, while two-way flows
between China and Japan totalled 21.7 trillion yen.

But damage to the alliance could create uncertainty in the
region, eventually affecting investment flows.

WHY CLOSE THE FUTENMA BASE AND REPLACE IT?

Residents of Okinawa, 1,600 km (1,000 miles) south of Tokyo
and the site of a bloody World War Two battle, resent what they
see as an unfair burden for maintaining the security alliance.

Outrage flares periodically among residents over accidents,
crime and pollution associated with the bases — most
strikingly after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S.
servicemen.

For the U.S. military, Okinawa provides a forward logistics
base strategically located in the western Pacific close to
Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

As part of a 1996 pact to reduce the U.S. military
presence, the United States and Japan agreed to close Futenma
Air Station, home to about 2,000 Marines and located in crowded
Ginowan City, within seven years if a replacement could be
found on Okinawa.

An initial plan for an offshore facility in northern
Okinawa was opposed by locals and environmentalists. The 2006
plan would shift the facility to Nago, where it would be partly
built within another base and on reclaimed land.

IS THIS JUST ABOUT FUTENMA?

No. The issue is much broader. Washington and Tokyo agreed
in 2006 on a “road map” to transform the decades-old alliance,
the pillar of Japan’s post-World War Two security policies.

Part of a U.S. effort to make its military more flexible
globally, the realignment fits efforts by the then-ruling
Liberal Democratic Party to shed the constraints of Japan’s
pacifist constitution and assume a higher security profile.

Central to the pact was a plan to reorganise U.S. troops in
Japan, including a shift of up to 8,000 Marines by 2014 to the
U.S. territory of Guam from Okinawa. The Marines’ move depends
on finding a replacement site for Futenma, although some
critics have questioned whether the two really need to be
linked.

Investing Analysis
($1=90.00 Yen)
(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Chisa Fujioka;
Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Q+A-Japan PM tries to solve US base feud as poll nears