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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Poll win seen clearing one hurdle to Futenma move


Staff writer

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. -- When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets U.S. President George W. Bush later this week, he'll be able to bring word that Sunday's election removed a political hurdle in the "road map" for realigning U.S. bases in Okinawa.

But roadblocks remain to realizing the plans, the centerpiece of which is the relocation of the U.S. Marine base in Futenma to Henoko in northern Okinawa, and a growing number of officials and experts on both sides of the Pacific are wondering when, or even if, the realignment will take place.

With Sunday's election of Aiko Shimajiri, who had the backing of the ruling parties, to the Upper House, Abe now has an important political ally in his efforts to convince Okinawans to accept a comprehensive agreement to realign the U.S. bases in Japan.

That agreement, known as the road map for realignment, was finalized last May. Its main feature is a new facility to replace Futenma to be built on and extending from the Henoko Peninsula farther north on Okinawa Island. The target date for completion is 2014, after which 8,000 marines will be relocated to Guam.

But in the year since the road map was finalized, there has been little visible progress on relocating the Futenma base. Disagreements between Okinawan officials and the central government over the new facility's design and a strong local antibase movement have relocation efforts bogged down.

Nor is Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who was elected last November with the support of the ruling parties, simply rubber-stamping the road map agreement.

While supporting the Henoko relocation, Nakaima has called for Futenma to be closed within three years, a demand both the United States and the Japanese government say is impossible to meet. Shimajiri, though elected with the direct support of Abe, has nevertheless indicated she will follow the governor's lead on the Futenma issue.

Publicly, the U.S. position on the realignment is that it's a done deal and that implementation is now up to Japan. But privately, a growing number of U.S. officials in and out of the government who deal with Okinawa express doubts the plan will ever be realized without a lot more direct pressure from the U.S.

Robert Eldridge, a leading U.S. expert on Okinawa and director of the U.S.-Japan Alliance Affairs Division at Osaka University, said Washington has made a diplomatic blunder with its hands-off approach.

"Making the Japanese government take responsibility (for carrying out the base realignment agreement) was a good idea in theory. But Tokyo has mishandled things so badly with local Okinawan concerns that the U.S. will end up regretting they weren't able to better influence the public debate within Japan over the Futenma issue," said Eldridge, a critic of the realignment agreement.

To have the replacement facility built and operational by 2014, the precondition for returning the Futenma site, Japan envisions construction beginning in early 2010. But a whole series of preliminary surveys and environmental impact studies still need to first be carried out on the seabed around Henoko.

That could pose a problem because Nakaima and the city of Nago, where Henoko is located, are also demanding a revision to the plan that would put the offshore facility farther out to sea in the hope of reducing noise levels during takeoffs and landings. It remains unclear whether the central government would accept the proposed revision. But the negotiation process could make it even harder to meet the 2014 deadline.

Okinawan politicians have repeatedly warned that Tokyo must first win the trust of the local population for everything related to building the new base. Barging ahead with the facility without first placating local concerns will only stiffen opposition to the base and lead to more political roadblocks and delays, Eldridge warned.

Some American officials are also questioning whether Japan will be able to meet the deadline. In an interview with local media last May, Thomas Reich, then U.S. consul general in Okinawa, said the relocation of Futenma, and the return of the land it occupies, by 2014 was merely the target.

"Can we do it within that time? I don't know. These are not absolute, ironclad deadlines," Reich said, according to an official transcript of the interview.



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