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Friday, Oct. 28, 2005

Vow to 'fully execute' leaves Tokyo in Futenma dilemma


Staff writer

At first glance, the government appears to have succeeded in persuading the United States to relocate the operations of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to its proposed site in Camp Schwab further north in Nago.

News photo
Masanori Nishi (left), head of the Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau, sits with Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine at the start of their meeting to discuss the new plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station.

But Tokyo may have backed itself into a corner by promising Washington that the agreement will be "fully executed," because it is unclear whether the central government will be able to get consent for the deal from the Okinawa Prefectural Government.

In a brief statement after the agreement was reached, Richard Lawless, the chief U.S. negotiator, stressed that he received assurances that the Japanese plan -- which calls for the construction of a 1,720-meter long runway using land from Camp Schwab and filling in a portion of Oura Bay -- "can and will be fully executable in a comprehensive and timely manner."

Amid mounting distrust of the central government, however, many experts say that getting Okinawa residents and local government officials to accept the plan will be difficult. And if Tokyo cannot persuade Okinawa, it will lose Washington's trust and damage the bilateral alliance, Defense Agency officials admit.

"We stuck to our plan in the belief that we should not damage the environment of Okinawa," agency chief Yoshinori Ono told reporters after the agreement was reached. "I very much hope that the people of Okinawa will accept it."

The Foreign Ministry has been concerned that the Futenma dispute might spill over and seriously damage the Japan-U.S. relationship and cast a shadow over talks between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush, who is scheduled to visit in mid-November.

"Unlike other issues, which can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, talks on the U.S. military realignment in Japan form the core of the bilateral alliance," said a senior ministry official. "If they come to a deadlock, it will cause serious damage to the bilateral relationship."

Ono called Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Wednesday night to get his support on the relocation agreement. But Inamine, who wants to move Futenma's helicopter operations outside the prefecture altogether, apparently was not pleased.

"The situation is serious," a top Defense Agency official said.

Separately on Thursday, a citizens' group in Okinawa submitted a petition to Inamine urging the governor to reject the agreement, arguing that it would lead to permanent use of Okinawa by the U.S. military.

Sensing Okinawa's resistance, sources said the central government has begun contemplating legislation that would allow it to unilaterally grant permission to fill in the land necessary for the relocation. At present, the central government needs the governor's permission for such work.

"The idea (of enacting a special law) does exist, but that's a last resort," a top Tokyo official said. "We will do everything we can first to persuade the local government."

Inamine's predecessor, for one, seems unlikely to be swayed anytime soon.

"How can they think of such an absurd idea?" said former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who is now a Social Democratic Party member of the House of Councilors. "They are completely ignoring the concept of local autonomy."

Ota harshly criticized the government, describing it as an attempt to concentrate the burden of hosting the U.S. military on Okinawa, which is geographically far from the mainland and economically weak.

Ota urged the two countries to move Futenma's functions to Guam or Hawaii, maintaining that this would be more feasible than the current plan.



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The Japan Times

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