White Beach base site said credible

Futenma option seen as way to ease Okinawa's overall burden

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — The proposal to build a replacement base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the Katsuren Peninsula in central Okinawa Island, stretching from the White Beach Naval Facility to a nearby small island, is the latest idea to be floated in the contentious relocation abyss.

A 2006 U.S.-Japan accord calls for Futenma’s flight operations to be relocated to Camp Schwab’s Henoko coast farther north on Okinawa Island in Nago, but that option, variations on it and other sites have met with both local and Tokyo opposition.

But the Katsuren-White Beach plan, which Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Monday was under consideration, appears similar to one originally suggested by Okinawan business leaders over a decade ago.

And in the past, the plan had a degree of support from local politicians and Okinawa-based marines that neither Henoko nor any other sites ever enjoyed.

While details of the Katsuren plan currently under consideration are uncertain, the idea for a facility in the area originated with Okinawa business leaders in the late 1990s and was expanded in 2005 by Robert Eldridge, then an academic specializing in postwar relations between the U.S., Japan and Okinawa and currently working for the U.S. Marines in Okinawa in their community policy office.

Eldridge, when still an academic, presented his proposal to the marines, the central government, Okinawan political and business leaders, and to the now ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

In early 2009, before the DPJ came to power in a coalition government, Eldridge again pushed a Katsuren plan to senior DPJ leaders, including Yukio Hatoyama, who is now the prime minister.

Under his 2005 proposal, the functions of Futenma, Camp Kinser, the U.S. Army Naha Military Port and the Air Self-Defense Force base at Naha International Airport were to have been moved to a facility, to be built on partially filled in shallows a few kilometers off the Katsuren Peninsula and the 1.5 million sq.-meter White Beach training area, where the marines conduct amphibious assault training.

The proposal called for an artificial island housing a heliport and two 3,600-meter runways, and, in addition to the marines, aircraft from both the ASDF at Naha airport and the U.S. Air Force at Kadena would be based at Katsuren, reducing noise complaints from residents who live beside those two facilities.

“Flight paths to the Katsuren facility would be over the water, the facility could be constructed quickly, the environmental impact would be minimal, and the base would provide a source of revenue for Uruma city,” which lies on the tip of the peninsula, Eldridge wrote.

“The facility would relieve congestion on Route 58, along which Futenma, Naha Military Port, and (marine base) Camp Kinser all lie. From a military perspective, the facility is also ideal in that it’s closer to Kadena, other facilities, and housing areas so that, in a crisis situation, operations and command and control will likely go more smoothly,” he added.

The plan concluded operating out of Henoko would be fraught with logistical problems for the marines, while a Katsuren facility would reduce both operational problems and the risk of traffic accidents, a major source of friction between Okinawans and U.S. military personnel.

“Even in normal times, the daily 90-minute commute envisioned with the Henoko move for some personnel stationed elsewhere in Okinawa is going to lead to stress, a drop in morale, an increase in (traffic) accidents, and a decrease in the ability to respond to crises,” Eldridge wrote.

Five years ago, the Katsuren plan was praised by a few top marine officers in Okinawa and members of the then long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and senior business leaders in the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Supporters saw it addressing the operational needs of the marines and meeting demands from the public to reduce the burden of hosting the bases, especially Futenma in the crowded city of Ginowan.

But although the plan was originally seen as merely one part of an overall strategy to deal with many of the issues that have plagued Okinawa’s relationship with both Tokyo and Washington for decades, the current political situation in Okinawa is less favorable than it was in 2005 toward building a new base off Katsuren or anywhere else.

Political opposition in Okinawa to both the ruling and opposition parties remains strong, although Shoukichi Kina, an Upper House DPJ member from Okinawa, told reporters Sunday the Katsuren plan would also call for moving the ASDF unit from Naha and that this might help overcome local opposition.