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Okinawa: Abe to Make 'Concessions' on US Base Due to Looming Election - Analyst

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Monday that he "took seriously" the results of the Okinawa referendum on the construction of a new US military airfield within the island prefecture, which saw a total of 72.2 percent of voters opposing the move, but said that it was "impossible to postpone the transfer dates".

Sputnik has discussed the possible implications of the referendum for the Japanese Prime Minister in the light of upcoming elections with Michael Bosack, a Special Advisor for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies.

Sputnik: According to the results of a recent referendum, 72.2 percent of Okinawa’s residents voted against plans to build a new military airfield for US troops in their prefecture. Could the locals’ will and the strong opposition of Governor Danny Tamaki on the issue impact the position of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who supports the US presence in Okinawa?

Michael Bosack: The referendum is non-binding, but it provided a clear, democratically-achieved position against the Futenma Relocation Facility, meaning any forward movement on construction of the base will earn the label of “undemocratic”.  

The Abe government has drawn its line at the Futenma Relocation plan at Henoko being the only solution, but there are two major domestic elections this year, and one of the cardinal sins in Japanese politics is appearing “undemocratic”. With those elections upcoming, Abe and his ruling coalition will be doing their best to resolve the issue of appearing undemocratic in holding the Futenma Relocation Facility line. That means they will have to look to some policy concessions such as provision of additional subsidies to Okinawa or decisions that would reduce the “burden” of US forces in other ways.

Sputnik: Since the end of WWII and the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, the issue of the presence of US troops in Okinawa has been actively debated. What are the chances that such a referendum will be held, not only on relocating the base, but also on its closure?

Michael Bosack: Chances of a second, broader referendum are slim to nil.

Okinawa represents a complex milieu of interests related to US bases.  Some Okinawans want all the bases to close, while others would prefer to keep most of them open and simply want a reduction in the four areas of “burden” (US land usage, number of US personnel, amount of US operations, and incidents/accidents involving US forces).

The referendum on the Futenma Relocation Facility was politically feasible because it focused on a single base-related issue.  Gaining enough political capital to secure this one referendum was difficult enough for Governor Tamaki and like-minded Okinawan politicians.  Trying to achieve another referendum with an expanded scope would be more difficult as it would encroach upon many different local interests.

Sputnik: The Mutual Cooperation and Security Agreement serves as the legal basis for the presence of US military bases in Japan. It reads: “This Treaty shall remain in force until, in the opinion of the governments of Japan and the United States of America, there shall have come into force such United Nations arrangements as will satisfactorily provide for the maintenance of international peace and security in the Japan area.” How do you see the future of this treaty? What is the likelihood that “international peace and security” in the area will be guaranteed not only by the US?

Michael Bosack: A referendum calling for a change in the Futenma Relocation Plan does not represent a challenge to the broader US-Japan alliance or its underlying mutual security treaty.  Both countries continue to value the alliance, and the evolving security environment only reinforces the core functions of the relationship.  The US and Japanese governments maintain policies aimed at the long-term sustainment of the security alliance.

READ MORE: Japan's Okinawa 'Votes Against' Controversial US Base Relocation – Authorities

Sputnik: The agreement on Mutual Cooperation and Security also states that “either Party may give notice to the other Party of its intention to terminate the Treaty, in which case the Treaty shall terminate one year after such notice has been given”. Considering the decision to relocate the base and the views of Okinawan citizens, how likely is it that Japan will terminate the treaty?

Michael Bosack: There is zero chance the Japanese government will take this referendum as grounds to change or terminate the mutual security treaty with the United States. The alliance continues to be a pillar in Japan’s defence structure, even codified as such in Japan’s latest National Defence Programme Guidelines, published in December of last year.  The United States is Japan’s only military ally and its closest security partner, so the treaty itself is immutable for the time being.

What we are more likely to see as a result of this referendum is a call to revise the Status of Forces Agreement, which offers the legal provisions for US forces personnel and operations in Japan.  The Abe government will likely look to amend SOFA rules as a concession to Okinawan politicians and advocacy groups that have repeatedly called for the revision of the fifty-nine year old agreement. The two governments have already supplemented the SOFA twice in the past three years, so the Japanese government is likely to present another supplement to the SOFA as a viable step in resolving issues related to Okinawa.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.