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     Jan 15, 2011

Gates changes stripes on Okinawa
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - In sharp contrast to his previous high-handed approach to the thorny issue of the relocation of a United States military base on Okinawa, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made conciliatory gestures to the Japanese government and Okinawans.

Gates said on Thursday during his visit to Japan that the US administration would defer to Tokyo in solving the long-standing dispute of moving the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of a densely populated area in Okinawa prefecture and consider the perceptions of the local public, who want the American forces out.
"We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan," Gates said in a joint press conference with Toshimi


Kitazawa, his Japanese counterpart . "And we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account, and that obviously needs to happen."

What a difference a year makes. During his last visit to Tokyo in October 2009, one month after Yukio Hatoyama's center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took the reins of government, Gates had demanded that the transfer of around 8,000 Okinawa-based Marines to the US Pacific territory of Guam would not occur unless the heliport functions of the Futenma facility were moved by 2014 to a coastal area of the marines' Camp Schwab in Nago City, northern Okinawa - as agreed in a 2006 bilateral pact for the realignment of US forces in Japan. At the time, the Japanese media denounced him as intimidating.

Hatoyama reneged on an election promise to enter negotiations with the US to move the American bases off Okinawa, and was forced to quit In June 2010.

"While issues associated with Okinawa and Futenma have tended to dominate the headlines this past year, the US-Japan defense alliance is broader, deeper and indeed richer than any single issue," Gates said on Thursday.

Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata echoed Gates' statement. "Yes, Futenma is just a one-of-them issue in the Japan-US alliance," Shikata, a professor of International Affairs at Teikyo University, told Asia Times Online. "The US knows Japan's DPJ-led administration won't be able to solve the Futenma issue any time soon, so the US does not want to make this single issue crack the bilateral alliance as a whole."

"With the Futenma base never moved out, Okinawa people will suffer most," Shikata added. "For them, it's a danger of continuing the status quo."

Training of F-15 fighters at Kadena
Still, to make the US presence less visible on Okinawa and to ease the burden on Okinawa to some extent, the two nations this time "agreed to step up the efforts to finalize" the relocation of part of aviation drills of F-15 fighters at the US Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to Guam, Kitazawa said. Despite the two defense chiefs' measured comments, Japanese media reported the two nations had already largely agreed on this issue.

Kitazawa also said the Japanese government would decide by the end of this year whether to allow sales of the US/Japanese-developed Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA anti-ballistic missile system to other nations.

"With regard to third-party sales, I also stated that it's necessary to consider the introduction of mechanisms for consultations regarding the necessity for prior consent," Japan's defense chief said.

Mindful of the constitutional commitment to peace which has long enjoyed widespread public support in Japan, previous governments have limited arms exports in accordance with the so-called "Three Principles", which prohibit arms deals with the communist bloc, countries subject to United Nations sanctions and those involved in international conflicts.

But Kitazawa said, "As you're aware, the previous administration with regard to transition to production and deployment, that will be treated as an exception to the three principles on arms exports. The question is how to transfer that - the system - to third parties."

Gates, meanwhile, underscored the benefit of providing the joint US-Japan sea-based missile shield system to other countries, by saying, "I think it's fair to say that the minister acknowledged the economic benefit of being able to make it available."

The defense chiefs' meeting was held amid high tensions, triggered by North Korea's continued menace and China's bold move to test-fly its new Stealth fighter during Gates' visit to Beijing. He headed for Seoul on Friday.

"If there is a common theme in my visits, it is the common interest of the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea and China for there to be stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "This requires that the North cease its belligerent behavior and its provocations that have killed innocent victims, both military and civilian, in Korea."

Who controls the Chinese leader?
Gates also stressed his visit to Beijing as successful by saying he had "constructive talks" with Chinese leaders, while maintaining a sense of vigilance against China's growing naval power.

"I believe there is the opportunity for further cooperation between the Chinese and US militaries going forward in the context of a much larger positive relationship between the United States and China," he said.

"At the same time, I explained that the United States will sustain its military presence in Northeast Asia and look to enhance it in Southeast Asia and will firmly defend the principle of freedom of navigation."

Gates saw China's recent test flight of a Stealth fighter illustrated a "disconnect" between its military and civilian leaders. He called the lack of communication between them "a worry", but he was cautions enough to add that China maintained civilian control of the military.

"I believe we've seen instances where specific events took place where the Chinese civilian leadership might not have known about them in advance," Gates said at Keio University in Tokyo on Friday before heading for Seoul.

"In the larger sense of who controls the Chinese military and who has the ultimate authority, there is no doubt in my mind that it is President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership of that government," he said.

But most of Japanese security analysts such as Shikata, as well as Tokyo's experts on China, believe Hu is already losing his grip of the People's Liberation Army, especially when he begins to become a lame duck leader. In 2012, Hu is widely expected to hand over control of the country to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

"Xi is famous as a defense bureaucrat," Shikata said. "To kick out political foes, he has used the military support. He is an advocate for the military. Behind the curtain is a former president, Jiang Zemin, who backs up Xi."

Maybe China and the rest of the world can draw a judicious lesson from pre-World War II Japan. Then Japanese leaders were very confident in the early 1930s, as the nation pulled out of the Great Depression faster than other developed nations. This confidence gave the hawkish military leaders some room to take a hard line against other nations. They tended to refuse to make a concerted move with the international community. Then, the country gradually lost any leader who could exert control over the military.

After the fall of Lehman Brothers, the Chinese economy recovered much earlier than other nations, giving confidence to Chinese leaders including the military. The world might want to promote awareness about prevention of China's aggressive and unilateral actions, especially on maritime security.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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