The US-Japan relationship has not always been an equal one. However, a bruising visit to China last week made US Defense Secretary Robert Gates see Japan in an especially favourable light. In this changing – and increasingly Chinese – world, Gates seemed to realise that America needs Japan just as much as Japan needs America.
Most importantly, Gates – who visited Japan last weekend right after China – said that the US was ready to defer to Japan on a controversial issue that has threatened to poison relations with Tokyo for the last 15 years: that of the heavy US military presence on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
Okinawa is not the Pacific island paradise that its reputation as the “Japanese Hawaii” might suggest. American military facilities cover 20 per cent of the island’s surface, and the pleas of the long-suffering Okinawans for a more peaceful existence have become one of the most emotive themes in Japanese politics.
Most reviled of all is the US Marines’ Futenma air base, the focal point of Okinawan protest thanks to its proximity to a busy residential district. Rattling windows and broken sleep were bad enough, but the islanders’ opposition to Futenma became implacable following the rape of a local schoolgirl by US marines in 1995 and, more recently, the crashing of a US helicopter into Okinawa International University in 2004.
In the 1990s, the two governments signed a deal to relocate the base but their chosen spot – a second site on Okinawa – just hacked off the islanders even more. For them removal, not relocation, was the only acceptable solution.
Last year, the issue even claimed its first major political scalp, with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigning after failing to persuade the US to abandon the relocation deal, as he had pledged to do at election time.
The saga has often painted the US in a stubborn and domineering light. Yet at the weekend Gates sounded a far more conciliatory tone, promising to follow Tokyo’s lead where Okinawa was concerned, in “working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account.” North Korean belligerence and China’s rising profile have no doubt reminded the US that the alliance with Japan is bigger than any single issue. However, domestic Japanese politics may also have contributed to Gates’s conciliatory remarks. Hatoyama’s replacement as prime minister, Kan Naoto, has been running a more US-friendly administration than his predecessor; and Gates may have been trying to boost Kan – whose administration is looking shaky – by saying what he did.
“They’re looking for a compromise, to give Kan something that he can show to the public,” explains John Swenson-Wright, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. “It makes sense for Washington to offer practical concessions, but I’d be very surprised if the relocation of Futenma [within Okinawa] didn’t go through as originally agreed.”
Tokyo will be reassured by Gates’s overtures. But campaigners on Okinawa will remain wary of both governments until Futenma is gone.