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
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.