Gates warns Japan not to back out of plan to relocate US air base

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post / October 22, 2009

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TOKYO - Playing hardball with its closest ally in Asia, the Obama administration warned Japan yesterday of serious consequences if it backs out of a commitment to allow the relocation of a US air base on Okinawa.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that if Japan stops the base relocation, the United States would halt the withdrawal of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa and would not, as planned, return several parcels of land.

Gates’s words, during a two-day visit here, were a blunt challenge to efforts by Japan’s month-old government to carve out a more “equal’’ relationship with Washington.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide election in August with a vow to be more assertive and less passive in dealing with the United States, which is treaty-bound to protect Japan in time of war.

That promise resonated loudest in Okinawa, a southern island where many residents associate the decades-old presence of tens of thousands of US forces with crime, noise, traffic, and environmental degradation.

A prime focus of their frustration and anger is the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, located in an urban area that for years has been tormented by the comings and goings of helicopters.

In 2006 the US and Japanese governments agreed to shift the base to a less densely populated area. But the new site is a conservation area, with an relatively unspoiled landscape and coral reefs. Okinawans oppose the base relocation plan, and so do the members of the Democratic Party of Japan whom they have voted into power in the past two years.

Under pressure from his party, Hatoyama has said he will try to relocate the Futenma base outside of Okinawa or even outside of Japan, but he has set no deadline for making the decision.

Before he met with Gates yesterday morning, Hatoyama said he would “take time to produce good results’’ on the base issue. He also said that Gates’s presence in Japan “doesn’t mean we have to decide everything.’’

But Gates seemed to want a quick decision.

“It is time to move on,’’ Gates said, warning that if Japan pulls apart the troop realignment roadmap that it signed in 2006, “it would be immensely complicated and counterproductive.’’

“We’ve investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable,’’ he said.

Gates said that without the Futenma base relocation, plans to shift Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam would be stopped and “there will be no consolidation of forces and return of land.’’

For Hatoyama, the base relocation issue and the face-off with the Americans have become an early test of his leadership ability - one that could determine the success of his government