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Monday, Nov. 22, 1999

Nago base relocation no done deal

YOKO HANI Staff writer

Okinawa Prefecture's announcement Monday of a new site for heliport functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station marked a significant step in the government's efforts to solve the long-standing matter, a key issue facing Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's administration.

With the summit of the Group of Eight major nations slated to be held next July in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture -- the very site picked for the relocation -- Obuchi has been under pressure to quickly settle the relocation issue.

Whether the heliport will be available to civilian use and whether U.S. military use will be limited to 15 years -- two issues on which Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine has stood adamant -- remains uncertain.

Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki stresses that the central government has not set any deadline for settlement, Tokyo apparently intends to reach final agreement before the end of the year.

Toward that end, the government is expected to present a set of measures to boost the local economy -- especially of Nago -- at the next meeting between central and prefectural government officials.

The schedule for the next meeting between Tokyo and Okinawa has yet to be announced.

For Okinawa Prefecture, however, the decision may reflect an awareness that it needs to accept the presence of the U.S. military base in exchange for the central government's support, which is indispensable to achieving its long-cherished goal of sustainable economic development.

As Inamine acknowledges, Monday's decision is not ideal, calling it a "bitter decision" in exchange for a promise of economic development.

Inamine is believed to have made the decision in hopes of improving the economy of Okinawa -- one of the nation's poorest prefectures -- by building better relations with the central government.

"Many Okinawans hoped the Futenma airfield will be returned unconditionally," Inamine said during the meeting with the central government Friday. "But when we consider the international situation, we will have to make the bitter choice of moving it to another place (in Okinawa.) "

Now, as both Obuchi and Inamine await Nago City's acceptance of the relocation plan, key details of the relocation plan remain up in the air.

Inamine has been consistent in demanding that the new facility be jointly used by civilian and U.S. military aircraft, and that use by the U.S. military be limited to 15 years.

These two points were key to his campaign platform last year; Inamine defeated Masahide Ota, who opposed construction of a new facility within the prefecture.

Aoki, the top government spokesman, said Monday that the central government will further exchange views with Inamine on these points.

Central government officials, however, have earlier indicated it would be difficult to set a clear deadline on the U.S. military's use of the new facility, saying that the U.S. military's requests must also be taken into consideration.

They also said they cannot predict what will happen in international relations in 15 years.

Meanwhile, in Nago, Inamine's decision to allow the relocation within the prefecture will likely rekindle protests among local people.

In a 1997 plebiscite, Nago residents voted down the central government's plan to construct a sea-based heliport as an alternative facility to Futenma.

The result of the plebiscite, followed by then-Okinawa Gov. Ota's rejection of the relocation project in 1998, has effectively deadlocked the relocation plan and forced Tokyo to abandon the sea-based heliport plan.

During the negotiation this time, the central government has repeatedly stressed that the prefectural government is entrusted to take the initiative on the issue.

In a meeting between the central and prefectural governments, at which Inamine expressed his intention to accept the relocation within the prefecture, Tokyo promised to take steps to improve Okinawa's economy based on plans the prefecture will draw up.

The central government also said it will launch a panel made up by the central government, the prefecture and the host municipality to discuss the local development plans.

With this approach, Tokyo hopes the city that rejected the offshore heliport plan will agree to host the new facility this time.

"A relocation plan made by the government was rejected by local people (in Nago) before," Aoki said Monday at a news conference. "But this time, Okinawa Prefecture made the decision after much consideration."

Skeptics, however, voice concerns over Okinawa Prefecture's announcement of its decision at this stage, noting that the central government has yet to explain details of the plan.

With local residents still divided over the construction of the new facility within the prefecture, approval may yet prove difficult.

As Eisei Ito of the Democratic Party of Japan put it, the central government would have to explain the details of the relocation plan and its stance on Inamine's pledges if it intends to seek consensus of the local residents.

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The Japan Times

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