Okinawa Times front-paged a report saying that although 25 years have passed since the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) issued its final report on Dec. 2, 1996, citing the return of 11 U.S. military installations, the return of the Futenma Air Station has not yet been realized even though the report said the Futenma base would be returned within five to seven years. The paper claimed that then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mondale expressed hesitancy toward the idea of returning the Futenma Air Station to Japan in a U.S. diplomatic document on March 19, 1996, which said in part: “The meeting stressed the difficulties in developing a plan to return MCAS Futenma…. This builds on statements by the Ambassador, PDAS Hubbard, DASD Campbell and other USG officials in their own meetings to downplay the possibility of any dramatic change in Futenma’s status as a result of the Presidential visit (President Clinton’s visit to Japan in April 1996).”
Yamamoto Akiko, associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus, said that priority was given to military effectiveness rather than political considerations for reducing the base-hosting burden on Okinawa because the Department of Defense, not the Department of State, led the negotiations on the return of Futenma. The paper wrote that the National Security Council insisted that the decision on Futenma be postponed because tensions had grown between the United States and China over the third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996 in which the U.S. military deployed a carrier battle group to international waters near Taiwan in response to China’s firing missiles in the waters surrounding Taiwan. Yamamoto speculated that State Department officials, including Ambassador Mondale, became hesitant to agree on the return of Futenma based on the view that the return of the base would send the wrong message that the U.S. military would reduce its deterrence capabilities, while the Department of Defense supported the return based on the view that Japan would become distrustful of the United States and the U.S.-Japan alliance would be fundamentally shaken if the agreement were postponed. The scholar claimed that the maintenance and enhancement of the base functions became the key issue for discussions on the SACO agreement rather than the reduction of the base-hosting burden on Okinawa under the Pentagon’s initiative.