A Tale of Two Islands


A Tale of Two Islands

Mar 26th, 2012 2 min read
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia.

The site for the controversial military base lies dormant, its construction prevented by protesters. Pleas from the government that the future base was essential to national defense fell on deaf ears. Pacifist yearnings for peace trumped evidence of growing military threats from North Korea and China.

Looking to score political points for the upcoming election, the main opposition party trumpeted its objections to construction. Doing so required the party to ignore the inconvenient truth that it had initiated the project when it previously controlled both the executive and legislative branches. The ruling party rightly accused the opposition of hypocritical flip-flopping for political advantage.

The local provincial governor and provincial legislative head rejected construction plans. They asserted that local constituent concerns outweighed national security requirements. Base construction, they argued, would harm the beautiful and delicate ecosystem of island flora and fauna.

The remote island contained only one percent of the country's population, yet the controversy generated international attention. Activists from the mainland swelled the ranks of local protesters vowing to protect the self-proclaimed "island of peace" from "rampant militarism." The United States struggled to remain outside the fray by sidestepping claims it was secretly pressuring the national government to initiate long-delayed construction.

Having exhausted all attempts at appeasing the local opposition through diplomacy and increasing government expenditures to the island, the national government did what was expected of it. It began construction.

Futenma? Okinawa? Japan? No, the controversial planned naval base is on the South Korean island of Jeju.

Earlier in March, Seoul deployed 1,300 police officers to keep protesters at bay and ordered construction to begin on the base near Gangjeong Village on Jeju's southern shore. South Korea began blasting the seashore and putting caissons in place. Construction also continues -- despite initial protests -- on the massive military base in Pyongtaek, south of Seoul, for U.S. forces redeployed from elsewhere in South Korea.

The disparate responses between South Korea resolutely pressing forward to attain national objectives and Tokyo's timid acquiescence to protesters against the Futenma Replacement Facility is striking.

Since 1996, Japan has dawdled on fulfilling its obligations to move a U.S. Marine Corps air unit from Futenma Air Station to an alternative location on Okinawa. Successive Japanese administrations of both major parties have failed to make headway on implementing the agreement.

Japanese foot-dragging has had serious consequences, exacerbating local resistance to the plan and severely straining Japan's bilateral alliance with the United States, particularly after the Democratic Party of Japan assumed office in 2009.

The delays, and commensurate increases in construction costs, finally led U.S. Congress to cut funding for related construction projects in Guam, where 8,000 U.S. Marines were to relocate as part of the broader bilateral military realignment agreement.

Tokyo chafes at U.S. impatience.and says more time is needed to reach consensus on the Futenma issue. Yet, Japan's decades-long failure to take any action to overcome domestic constraints makes pleas for more time appear to Washington merely as more stalling.

The distinction between the pace of Japanese and U.S. policymaking resembles the differences between a Japanese tea ceremony and American instant coffee. A tea ceremony is ritualistic, complicated and time-consuming. Eventually, it results in a cup of warm liquid. Instant coffee achieves the same result in 30 seconds. Each side is baffled and frustrated by the mindset of the other.

Japan also habitually asks the United States for greater flexibility. Yet, the original agreement is already a series of unilateral U.S. compromises sacrificing alliance military capabilities solely to defer to Okinawan constituent concerns. U.S. deterrent and security abilities were further eroded through self-imposed restrictions on training exercises or moving them off Okinawa entirely.

In another effort to secure Okinawan "understanding," Tokyo increased its government subsidies to the island this year while Washington agreed to delink conditional parts of the agreement and accept removing Marines prior to Japan fulfilling necessary preconditions. Yet none of these efforts have altered Okinawan resistance.

The replacement Marine Corps air facility is now in doubt, the victim of U.S. Congressional budget cutters, Okinawan protesters, and Japanese inaction. Perhaps the United States would have had better luck had the base been on Jeju Island instead of Okinawa.

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Mainichi