New US ambassador Caroline Kennedy faces headache over Okinawa base move

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 2:41pm

Caroline Kennedy, the new United States ambassador to Japan, had no sooner stepped off the plane from Washington than she came face-to-face with her first diplomatic headache.

And if the experiences of previous ambassadors are anything to go by, she will depart at some indeterminate point in the future with the issue of US bases in Okinawa still unresolved.

On Monday, the day before Kennedy travelled in an elaborate horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito at the imperial palace, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made the Japanese government's position on the plan to relocate the functions of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station crystal clear.

"The move to the Henoko district [in northeast Okinawa] was decided at a summit of the leaders of Japan and the US, so that is what is going to happen," Suga told Masatoshi Onaga, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party's chapter in the prefecture.

Media reports of the meeting, at the Diet building in Tokyo, said Suga added that "moving the base outside the prefecture is impossible".

The problem, for both Tokyo and Washington is that while they have both decided that Futenma will be closed and its troops, aircraft and related infrastructure will be shifted to an enlarged Camp Schwab at Henoko, local people and the prefectural and district governments are firmly opposed to the transfer.

The agreement on the relocation of the troops - as well as a related transfer of units based in Okinawa to South Korea, Guam and northern Australia - was initially agreed in 2006 and was meant to have been implemented by 2014. That deadline is clearly impossible to achieve, although analysts in Tokyo say the US would be wise not to try to force the issue.

"Ambassador Kennedy will have to keep a fairly low profile for the first couple of months," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

The timing is sensitive because an election is scheduled for January for the mayor of Nago, which hosts Camp Schwab, and Tokyo is hoping for a mayor who supports the transfer.

The incumbent, Susumu Inamine, is a fierce opponent of the plans, and has resisted pressure from the central government to start work on enlarging the base.

If he can be unseated, Tokyo hopes the newcomer will quickly grant approval for work to begin - although a victory for a conservative candidate is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Hirokazu Nakaima, the governor of Okinawa prefecture, is due to make a decision in the next few weeks about a request from the central government to begin surveying the site for the extended base.

The majority of island residents are demanding that the base be moved out of their prefecture entirely. However, the Japanese government has steadfastly refused the request to move the functions of Futenma to elsewhere in the country,

Should Governor Nakaima turn down the central government's request, it appears inevitable that the US Marines will remain in their present location, amid the densely populated and built-up town of Ginowan.