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Tokyo and Washington agreed Friday on a road map for the reversion of five U.S. military sites in Okinawa, pledging to accelerate the handover of Camp Zukeran, the Makiminato Service Area, Camp Kuwae, the army port in Naha and Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1.

The two sides also assented to transfer the operations, in fiscal 2022 or later, of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the heavily populated city of Ginowan to an airstrip to be built in the Henoko coastal area in the city of Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island, once the replacement site is operational.

By showing Okinawans concrete schedules and plans for the return and redevelopment of the five sites, all situated south of U.S. Kadena Air Base, the central government apparently hopes to resurrect the plan to replace the Futenma base within the prefecture, a move already stymied for 17 years by local opposition.

“We were able to reach an agreement on plans to return (facilities and land now used by the U.S. military) south of the Kadena Air Base. It was (an) extremely meaningful (agreement) to lessen the burden on Okinawa,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, adding the accord demonstrates to the world that the mutual trust between Japan and the U.S. is on solid ground amid an “increasingly severe national security environment.”

According to the plan, however, four of the five complexes will be returned only after alternative sites are secured within existing U.S. military facilities in Okinawa or a large number of the U.S. Marines in the prefecture are redeployed overseas.

The new plan divides the five military sites south of Kadena into 13 smaller areas, each with different reversion timetables. In the earliest return, part of the Makiminato Service Area will be handed over to Japan this fiscal year or later. Seven of the sites, including Kuwae Tank Farm No.1, will be closed and their operations re-established elsewhere in Okinawa as early as fiscal 2022. Two areas will be returned in fiscal 2024 or later after marine contingents redeploy overseas.

The U.S. and Japan will review how the plan progresses every three years. The timelines may change depending on the progress, a Defense Ministry official said.

The plan’s future is thus cloaked in uncertainty, given the fervent antimilitary sentiment of Okinawa residents, who oppose construction of any new U.S. forces installations.

The prefecture has meanwhile demanded the early reversion of all five sites, saying redevelopment of these areas would greatly benefit the local economy.

Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos signed the new agreement Friday.

Earlier in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed the central government’s determination to push for the Futenma base replacement at Henoko, thus maintaining the U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa, saying Japan needs “the deterrence power.”

Moritake Tomikawa, professor of economics at Okinawa International University, told The Japan Times Friday that reversion of the Futenma base and the other five sites — if realized— would bring huge economic benefits to Okinawa’s economy.

Tomikawa said the land rents generated by the U.S. use of the sites and consumption by personnel working at them translate into annual local economic benefits of ¥108.6 billion.

But Nomura Research Institute estimated in 2007 that the reversion of all of those sites, as well as the Futenma base, would eventually bring economic benefits worth more than ¥900 billion a year, he said.

“The economic benefits from bases are limited by the size of the (military-related) budgets. But redevelopment of the areas would create a mechanism of autonomous (economic) growth,” Tomikawa said.

In particular, redevelopment of the 271-hectare Makiminato Service Area, which is relatively close to Naha, could have huge economic potential, he said.

However, when asked to rate the road map out of a score of 100 points, Tomikawa only gave it a 60, saying it requires the building of many alternative facilities in Okinawa and noting the reversion process will run at least until 2028, leaving much uncertainty ahead.

He also noted that Makiminato and Camp Zukeran would be subdivided and returned over several stages, making it difficult to draw up comprehensive redevelopment plans covering all of those areas at once.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera plans to visit the prefecture Saturday to meet with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and explain the reversion plan.

Japan and the United States in 2006 agreed to replace the Futenma air station by 2014, but due to persistent local opposition they were forced to abandon this deadline in 2011 and amend the wording of the pact to read: “at the earliest possible date.”

The two countries had agreed on the return of the five sites south of Kadena as well, but since that deal was packaged with the contentious Futenma replacement, it meant they would revert to Japan’s control only after the new airstrip was built at Henoko.

Last April, Tokyo and Washington agreed to delink Futenma’s replacement and the reversion of the five other sites.

As one of Abe’s key diplomatic goals is to strengthen the bilateral military alliance with the United States, he is strongly pushing for the marine operations now at Futenma to remain within Okinawa and ensure their presence is maintained. On March 22, Abe’s administration submitted to the Okinawa Prefectural Government a formal application for permission to begin land-fill work in Nago to build the Futenma replacement base.

Information from Kyodo added

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