Tokyo has agreed to launch negotiations with Washington on a new pact that would effectively revise the framework for keeping U.S. forces in Okinawa, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told prefectural Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima Wednesday in Tokyo.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government has been pressuring Abe to revise the Status of Forces Agreement that establishes the ground rules for U.S. military bases and personnel in Japan, and to give local officials access to the bases to check on reported contaminated land.
During a meeting at the prime minister’s office, Abe also told Nakaima that the central government will pump about ¥300 billion a year into the Okinawa economy until fiscal 2021 and try to move some training operations of the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft outside the prefecture.
Later, Nakaima praised Abe’s proposals, apparently signaling his readiness to approve a request from the central government to carry out work on an alternative base in Henoko, northern Okinawa Island, to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, farther south.
Nakaima said he will decide Friday whether to permit the necessary offshore fill work.
If so, it would go a long way to resolving the long-stalled relocation plan that has been a thorny issue between Tokyo, Okinawa and Washington.
Nakaima described Abe’s proposals as “amazingly great,” and thanked the prime minister for working to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting the U.S. military there.
The central government gave Okinawa “the best budgets ever in history,” he told reporters.
Abe also pledged to launch a working team to accelerate the planned reversion of the Futenma base and Camp Kinser in Okinawa’s Urasoe. Nakaima has demanded the Futenma base be shut down in five years.
The prefecture has long demanded a revision of the SOFA, which it believes unfairly favors the U.S. military.
On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the two sides will soon start negotiations on a new pact concerning environmental issues to supplement the SOFA. The new pact, if concluded, would be “equivalent to revision of SOFA,” he said.
“The SOFA has not been revised for more than 50 years, and even negotiations to revise it have not been held. I’m determined to generate tangible results” through talks with the U.S., Abe told reporters.
A high-ranking government official indicated he believes the U.S. is ready to conclude a new pact, saying Tokyo and Washington have held unofficial talks since long before Wednesday’s announcement.
Abe is trying to strengthen and stabilize the Japan-U.S. military alliance by catering to a number of requests from Okinawa.
Okinawa’s strategic importance has grown since the rise of tensions over the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea. China and Taiwan also claim the islets.
Anti-military sentiment remains strong in Okinawa, where fierce ground battles were fought in the closing days of World War II. Meanwhile, the central government has for years provided huge financial support to Okinawa in a bid to ease the people’s frustration with having to host U.S. bases.
Nakaima has not made clear whether he will approve the reclamation request while continuing talks with the central government to win bigger concessions for Okinawa and more measures to reduce the U.S. military presence in the prefecture.