Opinion: Green solution to US-Japan dispute?

HONOLULU, Hawaii — Fifty years ago this week, the United States and Japan signed a security agreement that updated their post-war arrangement. Less than eight years before the agreement was signed, the American military still occupied Japan.

The agreement and especially the way it was pushed through the Japanese parliament led to violent demonstrations in Tokyo, forcing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel a state visit. It also helped lead to the downfall of Japan’s then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

Today, a dispute over a much smaller piece of the security picture threatens to inflict broad collateral damage ranging from the domestic political fortunes of Japan’s current prime minister to the implementation of U.S. strategic plans for the defense of the Asia Pacific region.

The issue is the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. In 2006, Japan and the United States agreed to move the air base elsewhere in Okinawa. Residents and local politicians want the base off the island entirely, and during last year’s campaign, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan promised to revisit the matter if elected. Their smaller coalition partner Social Democratic Party has threatened to abandon the government unless the base is moved out of Okinawa.

In November 2009, President Barack Obama agreed the two sides could discuss the Futenma issue at a cabinet-level working group, but there has been no apparent progress. The topic was on the agenda when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada last week in Honolulu, but no public specifics came from that discussion.

One of the keys to unlocking the dispute could be colored green. While political leaders on both sides reach for some sort of face-saving compromise, part of the solution may come not from the world of military strategy, but from environmental pragmatism.

When Clinton and Okada met in Hawaii last week, they could have found some practical inspiration by looking around Oahu. Hawaii is home to the U.S. Pacific Command, which is in charge of roughly a quarter of a million military personnel across the Asia Pacific. It’s also home to tens of thousands of service families — and some of the country’s most aggressive applications of solar energy in military and civilian use.

This month, Hawaii became the first state to require every new home to be built with a solar water heater, part of the state’s effort to satisfy 70 percent of its power needs with renewable energy by 2030. And when it comes to applications, Hawaii’s military residents are ahead of many civilians. The Navy is installing a series of solar panels on rooftops at Pearl Harbor, and the Army is driving a partnership called Army Hawaii Family Housing that it says will result in one of the largest solar-powered communities in the world.

Like Hawaii, Okinawa is a sun-drenched island grouping. Surely years of experience working with solar energy have built up an expertise within the U.S. military that could be shared. The benefits could stretch to residents and small businesses in Okinawa, generating not only electricity, but also some badly needed local good will. That would add a peaceful and positive element to community relations, one of the most sensitive parts of the Futenma dispute. “Confidence-building” involving the military doesn’t always need to mean exercises, drills and inspections.

While in Honolulu last week, Clinton spoke of U.S. priorities when it comes to broader relations within the Asia Pacific community. She said: “We should look for more ways to enhance military-to-military cooperation and decrease mistrust and misunderstanding.”

Here’s an opportunity to do exactly that with our closest ally in the region. Solar energy is of course by no means a complete answer to the Futenma Air Base issue. But sharing technology, expertise and practical experience could serve as a small step, demonstrating a spirit of cooperation and compromise.

Bill Dorman is an Emmy-award winning journalist who has coverd Asia Pacific issues for more than two decades, based at various times in Tokyo, Washington, D.C., and New York. He currently lives in Honolulu, where he writes and does consulting work in communications.