Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a direct request to President Barack Obama in February for the United States to draw up plans for the early return of five facilities and areas leased to the U.S. military in Okinawa, Japanese sources said Thursday.
The United States remains reluctant to say explicitly when the sites may be returned to Japan, because bilateral negotiations have stalled.
In his summit with Obama in Washington on Feb. 22, Abe was quoted as saying, “It would be easier for us to proceed with the relocation of (U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma) if you could bring forward” the process of drawing up the plans, referring to the stalled effort to build a replacement base for Futenma in the prefecture.
The request was made ahead of the central government’s application, which may be made next week, to Okinawa Prefecture for permission to begin land-fill work for the replacement base, whose runways would extend offshore. The application is essential for building the replacement base in a coastal area of Okinawa Island for the Futenma base in Ginowan.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has authority over land-fill work in the publicly owned waters off Nago, where the replacement facility is being planned. Strong local opposition to the project, however, has stalled the building of the Futenma replacement base.
In making the request to Obama, Abe was hoping the prefecture would be more amenable to the planned new base, but the U.S. side maintained its position, during working-level meetings following the summit that it is difficult to state explicitly when the targeted facilities and areas may be returned, according to the sources.
Okinawa officials are likely to reject the government’s application for land reclamation if the U.S. plans do not include a timeline for the return of the sites.
Under a bilateral agreement reached last April, the facilities and areas south of the U.S. Kadena Air Base would be returned to the Japanese side immediately, once replacement facilities are provided in Okinawa, or as marine contingents are relocated outside of Japan.
A plan detailing relocation steps was also to be drawn up by the end of last year. But the work did not progress as quickly as Japanese and U.S. officials had hoped, partly because of the U.S. budget crisis, which has threatened a cut in defense spending.
At a postsummit news conference Feb. 22, Abe said he and Obama had “agreed that with regard to the realignment of U.S. Forces in Japan, we will move forward at an early time on the relocation of Futenma Air Station and the plan to return areas south of Kadena.”
In the April 2012 agreement between the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the United States, parts of Camp Zukeran and the Makiminato Service Area are to be returned immediately upon “completion of necessary procedures.”
The rest of the two facilities and three other areas — Camp Kuwae, Naha port and Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1 — are to be returned either once replacement facilities are provided in Okinawa or as marines relocate from Okinawa to locations outside of Japan.