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Thursday, Oct. 21, 1999

Futenma debate near conclusion


By TOSHI MAEDA and YOKO HANI

Staff writers

Top government officials are to visit Okinawa today in the hope of being able to draw up with the prefecture a final blueprint for the controversial relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station.

Adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, Tokyo and Washington hope to settle the long-standing issue of relocating the facility, sited in a residential area in southern Okinawa, before the prefecture hosts the next Group of Eight summit in July 2000.

Today's talks between Gov. Keiichi Inamine and Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, his predecessor Hiromu Nonaka and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono come at a time when the prefecture appears to be gradually creating an atmosphere that will enable both sides to reach agreement on a new site.

There seems to have been a a big step forward in the relocation wrangle, at least in the eyes of the central and prefectural governments.

Last Friday, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the Futenma heliport to be relocated within the prefecture in the near future. It was an unlikely move by the Okinawan side, which has persistently rejected plans to build any new military facility since the islands were returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1972.

During his meeting with Aoki and the other government representatives, Inamine is expected to informally suggest a location for the new airport to replace the Futenma installation.

Although Inamine remains tight-lipped over the potential site, local media suggest it is likely to be an area neighboring the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab in central Okinawa. The governor plans to build an airport that can be used by both military and commercial flights.

Inamine made another conciliatory move earlier this week by hinting that he would not press for the joint use of the airport to be limited to 15 years, as he had said during his election campaign last year. The move was seen as an effort to appease the United States, which was unhappy with the 15-year limit.

Meanwhile, the central government officials are expected to present Inamine with details of the economic assistance that Tokyo would grant to the municipality if it is willing to accept the new airport.

The prefecture has demanded that Tokyo provide the host municipality with extra financial assistance to boost the local economy and that it also help convert the Futenma site after relocation into a useful civilian facility.

Tokyo hopes Okinawa will formally announce the site for the alternative airport by December, when the fiscal 2000 state budget is finalized. Central government officials, however, believe it is better to remain silent on the issue and let the prefecture handle the matter.

Aoki recently told The Japan Times that the central government does not intend to set a deadline for the settlement of the Futenma relocation question.

"The prefecture is vigorously tackling the matter and we only hope the settlement will come as soon as possible," he said.

As part of efforts to soothe anti-U.S. military sentiment in Okinawa, especially after three U.S. servicemen raped a local schoolgirl in 1995, Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to relocate 11 U.S. military installations in the prefecture, including Futenma Air Station, on condition that the same functions are maintained within the prefecture.

Relations between Tokyo and Okinawa dropped to frigid levels under former Gov. Masahide Ota, who in February 1998 flatly rejected the central government's plan to construct a sea-based heliport off Camp Schwab as an alternative facility to Futenma.

Inamine, who beat Ota in the gubernatorial election last November, has instead sought to improve the economic standing of Okinawa, one of the nation's poorest prefectures, through better ties with the central government on the issue of relocating and realigning U.S. military facilities.

The administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has proceeded cautiously on the Futenma issue, fearing that any comment from Tokyo could once again anger Okinawans and ruin efforts to reach a resolution.

In a 1997 plebiscite, Nago residents voted down the plan for the sea-based heliport.

The result of the plebiscite, coupled with Ota's reaction, has effectively deadlocked the relocation plan and forced Tokyo to abandon the sea-based heliport plan.

In contrast to the eased tensions between Tokyo and the prefecture, however, local residents of Nago remain opposed to the ongoing relocation talks.

Representatives of three districts neighboring Camp Schwab recently called on Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto to refuse to accept any plan to move the functions of the Futenma base into the area.

"At the moment, we do not see protesters on the streets," Nago municipal worker Takenobu Kishimoto said. "But once the request (to accept an airport) is (formally) made by the prefecture, they may return."

Joint use possible

Meanwhile, a top U.S. defense official reportedly suggested Wednesday that Washington would accept a civilian-military airport as an alternative site for the relocated functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in southern Okinawa.

Kurt Campbell, the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the U.S. is willing to study the Okinawan government's proposal to build an airport that can be used jointly by the U.S. military and commercial airlines, a major Japanese daily reported Thursday.

Under a 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement, the Futenma installation is to be closed by 2003 on condition that its military functions are relocated to another site within the island prefecture.

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine has promised since last year that the alternative airport will not be a purely military facility.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said Thursday that Tokyo, too, is ready to discuss the shared facility idea.

"We need to consider joint use as long as operational functions of the U.S. forces will be maintained at the site," a government spokesman said.



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