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Friends with issues

November 14, 2009

They may be on first-name terms, but Barack’s discussions with Yukio during his 24-hour stay in Tokyo have left unresolved a feud over a U.S. military base and deeper questions about the future.

They agreed to review the five decade-old U.S.-Japan alliance as both countries adapt to China’s rising regional and global clout, and they agreed to resolve as soon as possible a dispute over the U.S. Marines Futenma airbase on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa.

OBAMA-JAPAN/But President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama remain at odds over how to resolve the feud over Futenma – located in the middle of a city whose residents are sick of the noise and worried about the danger of accidents. 

Obama made clear he wants Tokyo to implement a 2006 deal under which Futenma would be closed and replaced with a facility on a less crowded part of the island. The agreement was part of a broader realignment of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, including a shift of up to 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam.

But Hatoyama said that comments during the August campaign that vaulted his party  to power had raised the hopes of Okinawa residents who want the base off the island.

High-level talks could begin as early as next week, reviving the headache the leaders played down at their summit before an APEC meeting in Singapore.

They can’t let the base row drag on. The victory of an anti-base candidate in a local mayoral election in Okinawa in January would make it even harder to agree to implement the deal, even with some

Bowing to U.S. demands could cause a rift with two small coalition partners, upset some in Hatoyama’s own party and alienate some voters ahead of an important upper house election in mid-2010.OBAMA-JAPAN/

But the bigger issue is the wider review of the alliance — a process one newspaper compared to being in “the same bed with different dreams”. Hatoyama and Obama want to complete the review before Japan hosts an Asia-Pacific summit a year from now.

Many experts say the alliance needs to be reframed to adjust to changing regional and global dynamics centred on China’s rise. But it remains to be seen whether the two sides will approach the process the same way.

Hatoyama wants to broaden the alliance to include non-traditional security areas, but what future role he sees for the U.S. bases in Japan is not clear.

Hatoyama’s party wants to steer a more independent diplomatic course but the paradox of Tokyo living in a nuclear neighbourhood but dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella means analysts see the relationship as inherently unequal.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Kim Kyung Hoon and REUTERS/Jason Reed

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