The court-mediated settlement to the legal dispute between the national government and Okinawa Prefecture over relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma should not just buy time for the Abe administration to take the political spotlight off the row ahead of upcoming elections, but should lead to serious talks between the two parties in an effort to achieve a mutually acceptable solution, including a possible alternative to the government’s plan to build the replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago in northern Okinawa.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise move last Friday to agree to a settlement proposed by the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court does not in fact resolve anything. Both the national government and the prefecture will withdraw the suits filed against each other over Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s revocation last year of the prefecture’s approval — issued in 2013 by his predecessor — for the government’s work to reclaim land off Henoko to build the Futenma replacement facility.
Abe has ordered the reclamation work off Henoko halted in accordance with the terms of the settlement. But his administration took another step on Monday to instruct the governor to “correct” his revocation of the prefecture’s permit under the law on local governments. Onaga is certain to challenge the instruction, which will most likely lead to another lawsuit seeking to get it withdrawn. Both the government and the prefecture say they will honor a ruling by the judiciary when it’s finalized. But the governor, who was elected in 2014 on the campaign promise of halting construction of the new facility in Nago, is said to be ready to pursue other means to resist the project if it loses the next court battle.
But the settlement also binds both the government and the prefecture to hold talks — until the ruling in the future court case becomes final — and to try to reach an amicable solution to the dispute over the Futenma relocation. Both parties should view the talks as perhaps the final opportunity to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Last summer, the Abe administration and Okinawa Prefecture did engage in talks for about a month — during which time the preliminary work for the landfill was suspended. But the talks went nowhere as both sides stuck to their respective positions. The government reiterated that building the new U.S. military airfield in Henoko is the only way to close the Futenma base, which is located in the middle of densely populated areas of Ginowan, central Okinawa. Onaga rejected construction of the new facility in Okinawa to close Futenma, as outlined in the 1996 agreement between the Japanese and U.S. governments. His argument that building yet another facility for the U.S. military in Okinawa is unacceptable given the prefecture’s postwar history of having to host a disproportionately heavy share of U.S. bases under the bilateral security alliance appears to have fallen on deaf ears in Tokyo.
The breakdown of the talks led the governor to revoke the landfill permit approved by his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima in 2013, citing “legal flaws” in Nakaima’s decision. The national government responded with a lawsuit aimed at persuading the court to give it powers to override the governor’s move. The prefecture filed two other suits against the government, entering a full-blown court battle with the Abe administration. The Naha branch of the high court has wrapped up the proceedings on the government’s lawsuit and was set to give its ruling in mid-April.
Abe said he made the decision to settle the court cases with Okinawa out of concern that a protracted legal deadlock with the prefecture might end up keeping the Futenma airfield fixed in Ginowan for many more years. Political speculation holds that the prime minister was wary of the impact of the continued full-blown court battle with Okinawa — or the risk that the government may even lose the case — on upcoming key elections, including the Upper House election this summer and the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly race in June, and wanted to shelve the dispute for the time being.
While agreeing to suspend the Henoko construction and enter talks with Okinawa Prefecture, Abe said his administration is unchanged in its position that the relocation to Henoko is the only solution. He should realize that such a rigid position risks dooming the upcoming dialogue with Okinawa before it begins. His administration has reiterated — perhaps rightly so — that relocation of a U.S. military base is a matter of national security concern and the national government’s exclusive jurisdiction. But the stable operation of the U.S. bases — and of the security alliance itself — will also require the cooperation of the local governments that are hosting the facilities or are otherwise affected by their presence. The Abe administration should view the talks mandated by the settlement as an opportunity to resolve the dispute in a way that can win Okinawa’s cooperation.