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ANALYSIS - Airbase feud risks damage to U.S.-Japan alliance

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s handling of a feud over a U.S. airbase on Okinawa is fanning concerns about damage to U.S.-Japan security ties as the two allies face a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea.

A file photo of Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as she speaks during a news conference in Tokyo March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao/Files

Pessimists worry the ruckus could result in a downgrade of the alliance, a development that would likely cheer Beijing while adding fresh geopolitical uncertainty to the region.

Others forecast relations will stay firm but efforts to revamp the alliance, now entering its second half-century, to cope with changing regional and global dynamics will stall.

The discord coincides with China’s emergence as a more active naval presence. While analysts mostly dismissed the notion China was flexing its muscle because of U.S.-Japan tensions, they added that deeper divisions could encourage Chinese boldness.

“If indeed the alliance collapses and the bases are gone from Okinawa, I think China should be happy. But at least they are not trying to accelerate the current worsening of the relationship,” said Yoshihide Soeya at Tokyo’s Keio University.

During the election campaign that swept his Democratic Party to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes on Okinawa that the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase could be moved off the southern island, host to about half the 49,000 U.S. forces in Japan.

But with a self-imposed end-May deadline nearing for settling the row, Hatoyama told angry Okinawans this week he now realised a Marine presence was needed on the island to provide deterrence.

Analysts say, though, that a return to even a modified version of a 2006 U.S.-Japan deal to shift Futenma to a less populous part of Okinawa appears out of the question.

“You are going to have to go back to the starting line and have a long dialogue with Okinawa to come up with something, and in the meantime, what happens to Futenma and the alliance?” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.

“It’s not only messy, it’s quite damaging to the alliance.”

REDUCED MILITARY PRESENCE

Hatoyama’s proposal to move part of the Futenma facility to a tiny island northeast of Okinawa was also rejected out of hand by local residents and no other communities are raising their hands, although surveys show Japanese generally support the alliance.

“You can’t find a community anywhere in Japan that will say ‘Put a military base in our backyard because it is important for national security’,” Curtis added.

Some critics say Hatoyama was just wooing voters when he advocated moving the Marine airbase off Okinawa.

But others say his proposal reflected a real desire to reduce Japan’s military reliance on the United States while improving ties with Asian neighbours by creating a future East Asian Community modelled on the European Union.

“He is now saying the Marines are necessary for pragmatic purposes, not because he has changed his concept. He is trying to do things now that don’t fit his ideals,” Soeya said.

A view that Hatoyama is personally to blame for the alliance woes, experts say, is taking hold in Washington, inclining U.S. officials to want to wait until he’s gone to try to move forward.

“They are waiting for Hatoyama to leave,” Soeya said.

Support for Hatoyama’s government has nosedived since he took office due to voter doubts about his leadership. With an election just months away, some even in his own party say he may have to step down if he fails to meet the Futenma deadline.

Whether a new Japanese leader could resolve the Futenma feud, however, is in serious doubt. Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to close the base provided a new site could be found in Okinawa, but took a decade to agree on a replacement plan.

Replacing Futenma is a prerequisite for shifting up to 8,000 Marines by 2014 from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam.

“My guess is at the end of the day, they will not only remove the 8,000 but may get all of the Marines out of Japan and rethink the fundamentals of the alliance,” Curtis said.

“If they are forced out, it downgrades the importance of Japan for American military strategy,” he added.

Others say the Marines may remain in Okinawa, but still agree the risk of a less robust alliance is real.

“It cannot be that the alliance breaks. There is far more to the alliance,” said Brad Glosserman, director of research at Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.

“But the danger is that with the frustration levels, there is going to be a downgrading of the alliance over the years.”

Even those who expect the alliance to stay firm worry that efforts to broaden it to include non-traditional security areas from disaster relief to anti-piracy operations could stall.

“I don’t think it will lead to basic damage to the alliance but (as for) doing something new, creative and constructive, the alliance would remain static and in that sense, it’s damaging,” Keio University’s Soeya said.

Editing by Jerry Norton

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