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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Futenma plan rife with nondecisions


Staff writer

OSAKA — After three months of meetings, the recommendations for the Futenma replacement base in Henoko, Okinawa, released Tuesday are vague or nonexistent on specific technical points, with no decision on the runway options, approach and departure paths or completion timetable.

The result is an agreement designed more to satisfy the political short-term needs of the Democratic Party of Japan, which in May promised the report would be done by the end of August, than the long-term operational needs of the Japan-U.S. alliance, and one Okinawans are unlikely to accept and are already opposing, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.

Tuesday's report analyzed two proposals, a plan for two runways in a V configuration that Japan and the U.S. had agreed on in 2006 and a single runway plan that the report says would be slightly cheaper to build due to the need for less landfill in offshore shallows.

The fact that the single runway plan was the subject of negotiations initially surprised some on the U.S. side, who thought the talks would focus on how to make the two-runway pattern viable rather than introduce a whole new plan.

The May 28 Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee agreement, signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, didn't specify that only the two-runway plan would be considered, but that a group of experts would "study the replacement facility's location, configuration and construction method (and a report) would be completed by the end of the August."

But that was too short a time to seriously study technical issues related to any new plan, U.S. officials felt.

Over the years, the Futenma replacement facility flight path issue has been a source of bilateral tension, with the U.S. saying it has repeatedly asked Japan to air U.S.-supplied information on flight path requirements and areas around Henoko likely to be affected by noise from flight operations.

Tuesday's report contains no flight path particulars and is vague on the noise impact of both plans, although it does say the single-runway plan, during instrument approaches from and departures toward the northeast, would result in more overflight of land. The flight path issue is one Tokyo has long wanted to avoid being too specific on out of fears of further inflaming opposition in Okinawa.

In addition, there were concerns on the U.S. side that a single-runway plan would require a new environmental impact assessment, further delaying completion of the facility, which had been set for 2014. That deadline was one both sides said wouldn't likely be met when the two-runway plan was the only idea on the table, and is now much less likely given that a formal decision has yet to be made on which runway plan will prevail.

American officials have also said a key component of the May 28 agreement, communication and cooperation with the Okinawan communities, was ignored.



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