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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005

Japan, U.S. agree on new Futenma site


Staff writer

Japan and the United States agreed Wednesday to move the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to Camp Schwab, possibly resolving a dispute that has lasted nine years.

The plan, recently proposed by Japan, will entail building a 1,800-meter runway through an area where barracks now stand and filling in some land in Oura Bay.

With the crucial agreement in hand, the two allies will proceed with their so-called two-plus-two security talks of foreign affairs and defense ministers on Saturday in Washington as planned.

Top government officials breathed a sigh of relief after clinching the agreement. If the talks had failed, it could have seriously undermined the Japan-U.S. alliance ahead of President George W. Bush's visit to Japan next month.

"It was a long road, but the two sides readily reached an agreement," Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono told reporters after meeting with Richard Lawless, the U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for Asia and Pacific affairs. Lawless was Washington's chief negotiator in the latest round of talks.

Ono also said the two sides agreed to reduce the number of marines in Okinawa by "a couple of thousand." There are presently some 14,000 marines in Japan, most of them stationed on Okinawa.

Although the negotiators may be smiling in Tokyo, the Japanese government still faces the daunting task of persuading the government and people of Okinawa to accept it. Local officials there have been demanding the base be relocated outside the prefecture or to a joint civilian-military airport to be built in waters off Nago.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said later Wednesday the government would do its utmost to gain Okinawa's understanding about the new plan, but he added the relocation will not be an easy task.

The government "was unable to implement the (initial) relocation (plan) because of a lot of opposition," Koizumi said. "We need to carry out (the new plan) as soon as possible."

The defense chief called for cooperation from Okinawans, saying Japan had done its best to protect the environment.

In a news conference in the afternoon at the U.S. Embassy, Lawless said the U.S. side agreed to the Japanese proposal because it was given assurances Tokyo's plan would provide a "comprehensive, capable and executable solution" to relocate the air base's heliport functions.

Lawless said the agreement is expected to be officially approved at Saturday's ministerial meeting in Washington along with an interim report on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

The national government will start explaining the plan to Okinawa "as soon as possible" and before the two-plus-two talks are held, Ono said.

But it is likely to be an uphill battle. In fact, after hearing that a deal had been struck, a senior Okinawa official in Naha said, "There is no way we can accept it."

At issue was how to find an alternative to the initial relocation plan, which called for transferring Futenma's heliport functions to waters off Nago by building a 2,500-meter runway along the reef off Camp Schwab, near the city's Henoko district.

The government was in the process of gauging the environmental impact of the proposal, but its work was blocked by civic groups opposed to the move, and prospects for resuming the work faded.

Washington had been pushing for a plan to build a military airport on reclaimed land in the shallows off Camp Schwab in an effort to reduce noise pollution and for operational reasons.

During the talks, the U.S. put forward a compromise proposal that entailed building the runway closer to land but still mostly offshore.

Tokyo insisted on building the airport on the coast using the camp's barracks area and a landfill, which would cause less damage to the waters inhabited by dugong.

Japanese officials -- especially the Defense Agency, which is in charge of executing the plan -- feared that Washington's offshore plan would still stall due to opposition from civic groups.

In 1996, the United States agreed that it should return the land occupied by Futenma air base to Japan "within five to seven years" on condition that its heliport operations were relocated within Okinawa.

Information from Kyodo added

Zama move opposed

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa told U.S. officials Tuesday he is opposed to relocating the U.S. Army's 1st Corps headquarters in the state of Washington to Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Matsuzawa also urged State and Defense department officials to respect local residents' views on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

"We are basically opposed to strengthening the functions" of Camp Zama, Matsuzawa said at a news conference in Washington.

At the meeting, he also said the prefectural government will inform the central government of its views over the realignment, urging the U.S. side to take them into account.

Japan and the United States are seeking to adopt an interim report at a meeting of top security officials this weekend in Washington.

The U.S. officials responded that the United States is ready to discuss issues raised by the local government if the central government raises them, Matsuzawa said.

Matsuzawa further urged the U.S. officials to make efforts to resolve the noise problems at the U.S. Navy's Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture, which are caused by carrier-based aircraft, and asked them not to deploy a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as a replacement for the Kitty Hawk, which is powered by conventional means.



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