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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005

DEALING WITH FUTENMA

Issues involved in U.S.-Japan base talks


Staff writer

The following questions and answers deal with the deadlock between Japan and the United States over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture -- the main topic of bilateral working-level talks that began Monday in Tokyo.

What is the root of the problem with the talks on relocating the operations of the Futenma base?

The people of Okinawa have long been dissatisfied with the fact that most U.S. bases in Japan are located within the prefecture.

Their discontent grew sharper after an elementary school girl in Okinawa was raped by U.S. servicemen in 1995, prompting Tokyo and Washington to set up the Special Action Committee on Facilities and Areas in Okinawa aimed at reducing U.S. military facilities in the prefecture.

Did the committee reach a conclusion?

Yes. The two sides agreed in 1996 to relocate Futenma -- a strong request from Okinawa -- within five to seven years. But it took three more years before the government officially decided to build a new airport outside the reef off Nago's Henoko district.

A detailed plan, including measures to build the facility, was endorsed in 2002.

Is construction proceeding as scheduled?

No. In fact, construction was suspended due to opposition from local residents and environmental groups and there are no clear prospects for its resumption. The issue of how to expedite the relocation became more urgent after a U.S. Marine helicopter based in Futenma crashed on a university campus in Ginowan, the town that hosts the base, in August 2004.

What are the alternatives?

Washington is pushing a plan to build a scaled-down 1,500-meter runway off Nago. Japan initially wanted to build the heliport at Camp Schwab where there will be minimum interference from citizens' groups. But it switched to a new plan which would entail building the runway within Camp Schwab in an area now occupied by barracks but extending to an area offshore that would be filled in.

What are the pros and cons of the two alternatives?

The U.S. has stressed that Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto was willing to accept its plan. Kishimoto, however, announced he will not run for re-election in January.

In addition, citizens' groups are likely to block construction work because the site is located offshore.

Meanwhile, Japan's plan is less likely to be impeded by the groups because it is located within Camp Schwab and is partially on land.

However, the U.S. is reluctant to move the barracks. It is also against the Japanese plan because U.S. helicopters would need to fly over residential areas.

Is there a deadline for reaching agreement on the plan?

The two sides are hoping to put together an interim report on the realignment of U.S. forces by the end of the month and hold ministerial security talks in Washington on Saturday.

They want to hold the "two-plus-two" talks of foreign affairs and defense ministers before Nov. 2, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is expected to reshuffle his Cabinet. Government officials also want to resolve the dispute before President George W. Bush visits Japan in mid-November.



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The Japan Times

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