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Despite new plan, Okinawans fear Futenma will remain in Ginowan

by Eric Johnston and Masami Ito

Staff Writers

Wednesday’s agreement between Tokyo and Washington to delink the transfer of U.S. Marines in Okinawa to Guam from the relocation of the Futenma air base in the prefecture was greeted by politicians and pundits in both countries as an acknowledgement that the original plan was obviously no longer viable.

But in Okinawa, hope that Japan and the United States have taken the first steps toward canceling the 2006 agreement to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s flight operations to the Henoko coast of Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island, was tempered by concern that no mention of specific numerical reductions in the agreement means Futenma will simply remain in operation, in Ginowan, for years to come.

The U.S. is set to redirect about half of the 8,000 marines that were expected to be relocated to Guam as part of the bilateral accord to other Asia-Pacific locations, including Hawaii and Australia.

Takashi Kawakami, a security expert at Takushoku University who supports the U.S. alliance, says the new positioning will show China, which has alarmed the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries with its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, that the U.S. military will still be nearby.

“China continues to be a threat. But the U.S. has no money due to defense budget cuts. So it needs to operate its military more efficiently by rotating small groups of forces in and out of the Asia-Pacific region, thereby maintaining its forward presence,” Kawakami said.

In Washington, Jim Webb, a Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee who along with Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain called for Futenma to be consolidated with the Kadena air force base, which is near Ginowan, acknowledged Wednesday’s agreement.

But Webb, who noted recently that U.S.-Japan relations have been paralyzed by Futenma, said the U.S. still has work to do before Okinawa marines shift to Guam.

“Congress has laid out two requirements regarding our basing system on Okinawa and Guam. The fiscal 2012 defense bill requires the commandant of the Marine Corps to provide his preferred force lay-down for the Pacific region. And the defense secretary has been ordered by Congress to commission an independent assessment of U.S. security interests, force posture and deployment plans in the Pacific region,” he said.

“Congress has yet to officially receive the Marine Corps’ plan. The independent study is mandated by law to be provided by the end of March, with the defense secretary further obligated to report his findings to the Congress within 90 days of receiving the study,” Webb added.

Nago Mayor Susume Inamine, who is meeting with U.S. politicians and policymakers this week, hopes the accord will open the door to scrapping the Henoko plan. But in a speech Tuesday at the East West Center in Washington, he said it is unlikely Okinawans will accept the proposal to incorporate Futenma’s operations with Kadena’s.

“Okinawans don’t want to see an alternate base being built in Okinawa as a result of Futenma’s closure,” he said.

John Feffer, an opponent of the Henoko move at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said that while Nago residents and other Okinawans may be concerned that the Henoko option officially remains, the reality is it’s impossible to carry out, while integration of Futenma with Kadena is theoretically possible but practically improbable.

“There’s some support in Congress for the Futenma-Kadena plan. The rationale is that if a feasibility study produces a plan for an integrated Kadena with less noise pollution, Okinawans could be persuaded to accept it,” he said. “But such a scenario is unlikely. The Okinawans have been led to believe the U.S. footprint would grow smaller, not that the shape of the footprint would change.”

Kawakami stressed the importance of bilateral talks from now until Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda makes an official visit to the U.S., probably this spring, to meet President Barack Obama and discuss Futenma’s future.

“Everyone knows moving Futenma to Henoko is impossible. The Japanese government has the opportunity to restart negotiations on where to relocate Futenma,” Kawakami said. “But if the government fails to take the initiative, Futenma will no doubt continue to remain as it is.”

Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations and director of the International Institute for Okinawan Studies at the University of the Ryukyus, believes Wednesday’s agreement will lead to the eventual cancellation of the Henoko plan. But he said the possibility that the situation won’t change, as Kawakami indicated, is creating short- and medium-term political concerns in Okinawa, where Ginowan will hold its mayoral poll Sunday.