Futenma base foes gird for battle

AP, Kyodo

Threatening lawsuits and protests, opponents are gearing up to fight a decision by Okinawa’s governor that could pave the way for the construction of a new U.S. military base in the prefecture.

The new air station is intended to reduce the impact of the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa by replacing another base in a more congested area, but opponents want the operations moved outside the prefecture completely.

“What the governor has done is unforgivable,” Yuichi Higa, head of the municipal assembly in the city of Nago, said in an interview. Nago is the planned site for the new base.

“Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads, to stop this from happening,” Higa said.

Hiroshi Ashitomi, head of a Nago group opposing the base, said his organization would file a lawsuit challenging the governor’s decision.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Friday approved the Defense Ministry’s application to fill in land in Nago needed to build the proposed facility off the coast of the Henoko district. It would replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan.

But Nakaima later told a news conference that he would continue pressing for the American troops based in Futenma to be moved outside Okinawa entirely. He has asked that Futenma be closed within five years, while the new base wouldn’t open until 2022, under current plans.

“My thinking remains it would be fastest to relocate (the base) outside the prefecture to a place where there is already an airport,” he said.

U.S. defense officials told reporters that troops could move to the new base sooner if construction makes rapid progress.

The new air station is part of a Japan-U.S. agreement that would also move 9,000 marines outside Okinawa, including by transferring 5,000 to the Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. territory. Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said the effort to realign American troops in Okinawa was “absolutely critical to the United States’ ongoing re-balance” to the Asia-Pacific region.

“Moving forward with this plan will reduce our footprint in the most populated part of Okinawa . . . while sustaining U.S. military capabilities vital to the peace and security of the region,” the defense chief said in a statement.

The debate over the future of the Futenma base dates to 1996, when Washington and Tokyo signed an agreement to move its operations elsewhere in Okinawa. In 2006, the two countries agreed to shift the base to the relatively unpopulated Henoko district in Nago.

But after the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009, it raised the possibility of removing the base from Okinawa. While it later agreed to abide by the Henoko plan, the proposal energized a movement aimed at moving the base outside Okinawa altogether.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, a top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Nakaima’s decision a major achievement “after 17 years of hard work and setbacks.”

Around half of the 50,000 U.S. troops deployed in Japan are in Okinawa, and many residents complain about base-related crime, noise and the risk of accidents. Some feel the prefecture is bearing an unfair share of the burden of protecting Japan from attack.

A key factor could be the outcome of a mayoral election in Nago next month that pits an opponent of the Henoko plan against a supporter.

“The governor is taking a risk putting the prestige of his office behind the project,” said Jun Okumura, a political analyst and former central government official. “I still don’t see the project going forward without the consent of the Nago mayor, but I see that this improves the chances of success,” Okumura said.

“The government of Japan is poised to take whatever measures are necessary to maintain a strong deterrent while reducing the burden on the people of Okinawa,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

The politically difficult decision came only after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Nakaima on Wednesday and offered him an impressive economic package that included pledges of increased financial assistance for Okinawa.

Some outside of the prefecture have already started to ask what Abe aims to do next as part of his ambition to rework the country’s defense posture, which is heavily reliant on the U.S.

Jungen Tamura, a member of the Iwakuni Municipal Assembly in Yamaguchi Prefecture, has already faced that dilemma, because the city hosts the U.S. Iwakuni air station, which is seen as strategically important amid North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats.

“I do understand the logic that Okinawa’s base-hosting burden should be reduced and other parts of Japan may have to share it,” Tamura said. “The level of burden Japan shoulders as a whole won’t change, and Iwakuni tends to be the alternative to Okinawa.”