- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

TOKYO — President Obama’s arrival here Friday will mark the latest in a series of diplomatic overtures intended to improve relations with a country that his administration considers a critical U.S. ally for both economic and military reasons.

But Mr. Obama’s already delicate job became that much harder when speculation surfaced this week that an American was at fault in a recent hit-and-run accident that killed a 66-year-old Okinawa man. Thousands participated in recent protests against the American military bases on the island, and more are expected to rally during the president’s two-day visit, the first stop of a weeklong Asian tour.

“We all know the United States is a country where human rights are respected. But on this tiny island, Americans trample on our human rights, said Koichi Makishi, a local architect and longtime anti-base activist in Okinawa. “President Obama has been very popular in Japan, so we have very big expectations of him. Unlike his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, we believe President Obama will listen to us.

While personally popular in Japan, the president’s arrival comes as tensions have once again flared over the United States military presence on Okinawa. And despite Mr. Makishi’s expectations, the American president is not likely to say anything that will allay his, or his country’s concerns.

The American military has increasingly come to value the prime island real estate, even as the presence of 50,000 service personnel has proven a persistent thorn for the Japanese. What started as an irritant to locals — noise from jets and helicopters, unruly behavior by Americans wandering off base — grew into a full-fledged crisis in 1995 when three servicemen brutally raped a 12-year old Okinawan girl.

The episode forced a lengthy renegotiation of the American presence on the island and, eventually, to a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine helicopter base to an offshore facility and the relocation of some 8,000 Marines to Guam, under the condition that the Japanese pay more than $6 billion of the $10 billion cost, and foot the bill for the offshore base.

But new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan campaigned on a promise to alleviate the burden created by the U.S. installations, and has expressed a desire to renegotiate the 2006 agreement in order to force the Americans to move the Marine air base.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered the initial U.S. reaction Mr. Hatoyama’s position, and it did not go over well in Japan.

“This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on, Mr. Gates said.

Katsusuke Ihara, a former mayor of nearby Iwakuni, called the comment “impolite.”

“The U.S. and Japan agreed with the realignment plan without explaining it to residents,” he said. “The will of voters should be respected.

American officials have since tried a different approach: stall.

“It is very much bound up in domestic politics in Japan now,” said Michael Swaine, Chinese security and foreign policy expert at the Carnegie. The president, he said, has decided to give Mr. Hatoyama and his aides “time to get their ducks in line.”

In the meantime, Mr. Obama will use his visit to try and build a rapport with Mr. Hatoyama, who ran a Western-style campaign that adopted many of Mr. Obama’s own themes. The decision to have the president deliver his first major speech on Asia policy at a concert hall in Tokyo is just the latest gesture meant to show Mr. Obama’s interest in rekindling relations with Japan. Taro Aso, Mr. Hatoyama’s predecessor as prime minister, was the first foreign leader welcomed to the Obama White House, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Japan her first foreign destination.

Mr. Obama has plenty to personal capital to work with here. When the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of global attitudes towards the U.S. over the summer, an overwhelming 85 percent of Japanese citizens said they were “optimistic” about Mr. Obama’s leadership.

Rust Deming, who holds the Japan chair at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Mr. Obama is wise to be trying to capitalize on both his own popularity and the first significant change of party control in Japan in 50 years. Mr. Obama has “a lot of points in commonality” and an “ideological convergence” with the new prime minister.

He predicted the president’s major policy speech and his summit with Mr. Hatoyama will in part attempt to highlight those common interests, and how they can help foster cooperation in areas such as climate change and global economic recovery, rather than the base issue.

“The summit will focus on the broader agenda and we won’t see this issue tripping up the summit,” Mr. Deming said. “Beyond the summit, these issues will be back very quickly. … We’re going to be faced with this issue and it’s going to be very tricky to manage.”

Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asia policy in the George W. Bush administration and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the base issue will prove too prickly to ignore.

“This one will only get worse with time,” Mr. Green said.

During a recent interview with a Japanese broadcaster, Mr. Obama said he is “confident that once that review is completed that [Japanese citizens] will conclude that the alliance that we have, the basing arrangements that have been discussed, all those things serve the interests of Japan.”

Whatever justification the U.S. offers for the bases, though, appears unlikely to sway the Japanese, who see the continued presence as a sign of disrespect.

“Why does this issue arouse so much passion? That is because a great power like the United States has continued to do what people on this tiny island dislike,” Mr. Makishi said.

Etsuko Urashima, a local author and journalist in the city of Nago, in northern Okinawa, noted that the August elections brought a rare meeting of the minds among local conservatives and the progressives. They voted, she said, “for candidates who want to relocate U.S. Marines Air Station Futenma out of the island.

This past week, as Japanese police were investigating whether a U.S. military car was involved in the deadly hit-and-run crash, the incident would only serve to increase tensions.

When accidents like this takes place in Okinawa, Mrs. Urashima said, Okinawans see them not as just another traffic mishap. Rather, it is just another reminder that tensions surrounding the American military presence are not likely to be resolved with one presidential visit.

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