U.S. sees new air base plan as more risky

Pile-based strip likely to hurt sea, invite terrorism at Schwab site

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Japan’s proposal to build a pile-supported runway at the agreed relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa has been criticized by the United States as a terrorism risk that offers no environmental tradeoffs, sources close to bilateral relations said.

Washington argues that the construction method, called a quick installation platform, could cause as much damage at Camp Schwab off Nago as filling in the shallows in the area, dismissing Tokyo’s hopes of minimizing the environmental impact of the original Futenma plan signed in 2006, the sources said.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has told local Okinawa leaders that the government is looking for a way to settle the base relocation issue in a manner that “will not contaminate the sea,” an apparent reference to the dangers posed by filling in the sea for a new runway.

The U.S. lack of enthusiasm for the pile plan will likely put Hatoyama into an even tighter corner.

According to the sources, the U.S. side told Japan through unofficial contacts that a pile-supported runway would have as much negative environmental impact on the ocean as the 2006 reclamation plan because it would prevent sunlight from reaching the seabed and result in the destruction of seaweed beds.

The U.S. also told Tokyo that the impact of creating 140 hectares of dark sea surface under the runway is difficult to predict, the sources said.

As for terrorism, the U.S. has already said it is reluctant to endorse the plan because terrorist attacks could be launched from beneath the runway.

On Wednesday, Japan and the United States held working-level talks at the Pentagon to discuss the proposal, but a compromise is looking difficult.

Washington wants the Futenma relocation plan to follow the bilateral accord inked in 2006 and insists that any alternative plan be backed by local leaders and residents and have consensus backing from the ruling coalition.

The draft proposal also drew sharp criticism in Okinawa because Hatoyama had said the government wanted to move Futenma out of the prefecture to alleviate the prefecture’s base-hosting burdens.

The Pentagon talks, which took place at the deputy director general level, were the first full-fledged negotiations to be held between the countries since Japan drew up the draft proposal.

Japan was represented by Koji Tomita, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau, and Tetsuro Kuroe, deputy director general of the Defense Ministry’s Defense Policy Bureau.

The U.S. side was headed by Joseph Donovan, principal deputy assistant secretary of state, and Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs.

The Democratic Party of Japan-led government estimates that building a pile-supported runway will take seven years and cost about a 1.5 times more than the existing plan.

Although the draft plan states that building a pile-supported runway is just one option, many ruling bloc lawmakers are hoping to get the construction method changed from reclamation, given the relocation site is the same as the original, the sources said.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, “We continue to seek an arrangement that is operationally viable and politically sustainable.”

He declined comment on Japan’s draft proposal, saying, “The discussions are ongoing.”

On Japan’s suggestion of transferring some of the base functions at Futenma to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, the United States remains reluctant, saying that marine ground forces and helicopters must operate together, they said.

Japan has given up on meeting the May 31 deadline imposed by Hatoyama to settle the issue, which has strained bilateral relations, amid strong local opposition to hosting U.S. forces in Okinawa.

The 2006 accord would involve building two runways straddling the Henoko peninsula at Camb Schwab in Nago, which is less populated than Ginowan, where the base is now. Once the new base opens, 8,000 marines and their dependents would be relocated to Guam in line with the bliateral pact, which was reached when the Liberal Democratic Party was in power.