WASHINGTON – The head of the U.S. Pacific Command on Tuesday announced a likely two-year delay in the relocation of Okinawa’s Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The contentious base is to move from its present location in Ginowan to a new site on the coast.
“Now we’re looking at 2025 before that’s done,” Adm. Harry Harris told Congress.
Harris’ remark was taken to reflect frustration with the to and fro on the matter after the election of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga in 2014. Onaga wants the base kicked out of the prefecture altogether. The central and local governments have flung lawsuits at each other, binding the move in legal challenges.
The Japanese and U.S. governments agreed in 2013 that the land the base currently stands on would be returned in fiscal 2022 — which ends in March 2023 — at the earliest if a replacement facility is completed.
“It’s slowed. It’s … a little over two years late,” Harris told a hearing at the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
Tokyo has begun building an airfield on reclaimed land in Nago, but progress has been hampered by scuffles between protesters who want to block the building work and law enforcement authorities.
Tokyo and Washington say the move will reduce the burden on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Construction of the replacement facility is “Japan’s responsibility. That’s their obligation to us,” Harris said.
On Wednesday, senior Japanese officials said a bilateral accord to get Futenma on the road in fiscal 2022 remains unchanged.
“We would like to realize the relocation of Air Station Futenma as soon as possible,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters in Aichi Prefecture.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in Tokyo that the government will promote relocation work to free up Futenma’s current site “as soon as possible.”
Details are emerging of how the new site may look. The Marine Corps envisages building hangars for the MV-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft in the U.S. 2021 fiscal year, which ends September 2021, and runways and taxiways in fiscal 2024, according to the Marine Aviation Plan 2016. Further hangars will follow, to house aircraft including attack helicopters, in fiscal 2025, the plan shows.
Harris also told the committee that Marines in Okinawa will be transferred to Hawaii in the 2020s as part of a bilateral plan to move 9,000 of the 19,000 Marines stationed on Okinawa to locations outside Japan, including Guam and Hawaii.
Tokyo and Washington have agreed to begin shipping Marines to Guam in the early 2020s but have yet to reveal a time frame for their transfer to Hawaii.
Relocation of the Futenma base was triggered after three U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa in 1995. At the time, the plan was to return the Futenma base within a period of five to seven years.
This was delayed amid wrangling over details.
Tokyo and Washington then came to another agreement in 2006 — to relocate Futenma by 2014 — which also fell through.
In October last year, the central government began construction at Henoko, with the aim of closing the present Futenma site by February 2019. The present slew of lawsuits make that unlikely.
Meanwhile, Washington lacks any way to push the matter through.
“Any heavy-handed actions by Tokyo or Washington could lead to broader sympathy and support for the anti-base protesters from the public in Okinawa and mainland Japan,” said a report compiled by the U.S. Congressional Research Service in January. “Meanwhile, the Futenma base remains in operation, raising fears that an accident might further inflame Okinawan opposition.”