Japan is set to build an offshore airport for U.S. military and Japanese commercial planes in Nago City, northern Okinawa, almost six years after Tokyo and Washington agreed to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan City, central Okinawa. On Monday, the central government and Okinawa Prefecture signed off on a basic construction plan.

According to the plan, the facility will be completed on a reclaimed site of up to 184 hectares over a coral reef area 2.2 km from the central part of Henoko. The runway will be 2.5-km long (including a 500-meter overrun section) and 730 meters wide. The construction cost is estimated at 330 billion yen and the maintenance cost at 80 million yen a year. An environmental impact study is expected to begin this year or next.

Okinawa attaches a number of key conditions to this project. The most important of these is the demand that military use of the airport be limited to 15 years. The prefectural and municipal governments are also calling for the conclusion of an agreement governing the use of the joint air base and for environmental measures to protect the marine ecology in surrounding waters. It remains to be seen how the central government will respond to these requests in specific terms.

Monday’s agreement, which caps two years of discussions at a joint council of central government and Okinawan officials, takes into account the environmental and other concerns of local residents. The airport will be smaller than originally proposed and fairly distant from the coast. Reclamation, unlike more elaborate engineering methods such as building a floating structure, will cut both building and operational costs. Local businesses will be invited to take part.

The original plan of the Japanese and U.S. governments — which agreed on a full handover of the Futenma base in April 1996 — was to build an offshore heliport of the kind that could be removed relatively easily when necessary. The plan, however, fell through because of local objections, although it was meant to alleviate antibase sentiment

Enter Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who was elected in 1998, defeating incumbent Masahide Ota, leader of the antibase movement. Mr. Inamine came up with a two-way plan to construct a joint airport for military and civilian use, designed both to soften Okinawans’ opposition to a new military base and to spur economic growth in the industrially underdeveloped prefecture.

The governor’s approach, realistic though it is, continues to meet strong resistance from many residents. The local sentiment, however, will likely improve if some kind of deal is struck regarding the proposed 15-year limit on military use. As things stand, prospects for agreement are anything but certain. So far, the proposal seems to have gone virtually unheeded in Tokyo and, for that matter, in Washington as well.

In 1999, Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto accepted the relocation plan on the condition that a 15-year cap would be placed on military use. Although military strategy would preclude such a limit, the government nevertheless agreed to give it “serious thought” and take it up in talks with the U.S. government.

It appears, however, that thus far no meaningful progress has been made. While Okinawa has pressed for an explicit commitment time and again, Tokyo has given only vague answers, citing instabilities in the international situation. The government says it has discussed this issue with Washington, but it is probably more accurate to say that Tokyo has only conveyed Okinawa’s message.

At the latest council meeting, Gov. Inamine urged the government to “give direction” in solving this issue before construction begins. Since the prerequisite environmental assessment is expected to take three years (construction work is estimated to last a further 10 years), the governor’s request can be taken to mean that at least a broad agreement will have to be reached during this three-year preliminary period.

It is about time that Tokyo started addressing the Okinawan proposal in earnest, instead of just going through the motions. In the meantime, the Japanese and U.S. governments need to begin serious talks to find a mutually acceptable solution while respecting Okinawa’s aspirations to reduce its heavy dependence on U.S. bases.

That will not be easy, for such a solution will have to be compatible with security requirements. But it is also true that the base problem cannot be effectively addressed without considering the sentiment of the local populace. In fact, public opinion was a decisive factor in the agreement on the Futenma handover, just as it was in the 1972 return of Okinawa to Japanese control.

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