The United States was told last week that an offshore airport designed to be the relocation site for the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa would take 9 1/2 years to build, not including land reclamation work, Japanese officials said Wednesday.

A senior official at the Defense Facilities Administration Agency said the joint military-civilian airport’s main facilities, off the Henoko district of Nago, northern Okinawa, would be finished in the period.

Earlier projections had put the time frame at more than 10 years. Construction, however, has yet to start.

The official’s comment was seen as emphasizing that the relocation to Nago would be the quickest plan to realize amid growing calls from the United States to move part of the base’s helicopter operations to Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa.

The remark was made during a vice ministerial-level meeting on implementing a 2002 agreement between the central and Okinawa governments to build the airport to replace the Futenma base under a 1996 Japan-U.S. accord.

The meeting was held in San Francisco last week, attended by U.S. and Japanese diplomatic and defense officials.

The 1996 Japan-U.S. accord advocates returning the Futenma base to Japan within five to seven years of adequate replacement facilities being “completed and operational” within the prefecture.

Japan decided in 2002 to build a military-civilian airport on reclaimed land off Nago to take in the Futenma helicopter operations. There has been no construction work as yet.

During the San Francisco meeting, U.S. officials said the period of construction should be shortened, noting that construction of major offshore airports in Japan, including Kansai airport and Chubu airport, was completed in six to seven years.

But the Japanese agency official said the construction may take more time as it needs adequate bank protection work because it faces the open sea and adequate environmental protection measures should be taken, the government officials said.

Conservationists oppose the plan because dugongs, a protected species in Japan, have been found in the area.

The agency official reportedly told the U.S. officials that the agency could strive to shorten the period of construction, though he added that it will take more time if they try to pursue a relocation plan other than the Nago one.

A drilling survey aimed at studying the environmental impact of the construction on the area was planned at the end of April. It was delayed, however, after local residents launched a protest. The survey was the first concrete step toward carrying out the relocation plan.

Little progress has been made since the 2002 agreement, due partly to the prefecture’s demand for a 15-year limit on the military’s use of the new airport. The relocation also remains uncertain due to the anticipated realignment of U.S. forces worldwide.

Realignment talks

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) A senior White House official voiced hope Tuesday that Tokyo will accelerate talks with the United States on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, a Japanese lawmaker said.

Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet Affairs Committee, said that Michael Green, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House’s National Security Council, told him it may be difficult for Japan to coordinate domestic opinions this year on the realignment issue.

But it would be possible to expect major progress next year or in 2006, Nakagawa quoted Green as saying.

As part of the envisaged realignment, the United States may move some of the marines in Okinawa to two sites in Honshu and dissolve the 13th Air Force on Guam to integrate it into the 5th Air Force at the Yokota base in western Tokyo.

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