OSAKA – The United States will continue to back plans to relocate the U.S. Marine base at Futenma to Henoko, both in Okinawa, despite the surprise decision by Tokyo to suspend construction for a month due to opposition in the prefecture over the project, a U.S. official in Washington said Tuesday.
“We are confident that both sides remain committed to implementing the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay. We believe construction . . . is the result of many years of sustained work between the U.S. and Japan, and is a critical step towards realizing our shared vision for the realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa,” U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
He added that differences between Okinawa and Tokyo over the Henoko project are internal political problems.
“These are discussions that need to take place between local (Okinawa) authorities and the government of Japan,” he said.
But ever since Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga won election last November by running on a platform to oppose the Henoko project, concern has grown in the U.S. that the replacement facility, originally proposed nearly two decades ago, would continue to face significant delays.
The worries have grown stronger over the past few weeks, since Onaga indicated he would likely use his authority as governor as early as this month to cancel permission for necessary landfill construction related to the offshore facility. That permission was granted by Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, who was backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party’s central headquarters but lost the gubernatorial election to Onaga last November.
While Onaga and Tokyo will hold discussions over the coming weeks, what they’ll talk about, or agree to, is unclear. Onaga not only says he remains committed to stopping construction but also wants Futenma relocated outside Okinawa. For some U.S. experts, the announced moratorium might signal the beginning of the end for the current plan.
“It’s going to take more than one month’s delay to prompt a discussion between Washington and Tokyo of alternatives. But if the standoff drags on into next year we might start hearing more public talk of Plan Bs,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, in an email reply to The Japan Times.
But others believe that plans have advanced too far for a complete turnaround now.
“Once landfill is dumped into Oura Bay, there is no turning back,” said Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, via email. “But I do not think that Tokyo intends to abandon its construction plans for Henoko. The question is when the showdown with Onaga is going go to come. For now, it seems, the showdown has been kicked down the road.”
Key U.S. Senators have also backed the Henoko facility and, if anything, America’s determination not to change the plan has toughened in recent months. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, met with Onaga in June during the governor’s visit to Washington. Once a critic of the Henoko plan, McCain told the governor he now backs it.
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