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White Beach area seen as ideal airfield site

Date Posted: 2010-03-18

A ‘new’ proposal is being touted as the best solution to where to relocate the contentious Futenma Marine Corps Air Station: on a military base to be built on reclaimed land adjacent to the U.S. Navy’s White Beach Naval Base and Tsuken Island.

The plan being endorsed by Hirofumi Hirano, the Chief Cabinet Secretary to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, calls for making the new base a joint use facility to be shared by the Japanese Self Defense Forces now based at Naha International Airport. Although Hirano’s just begun talking the plan publicly, sources say the idea gained strength in Tokyo’s government circles earlier this month as an alternative to the existing plan developed and approved by Japan and the United States in 2006.

Hirano says the idea of a new base at White Beach in Uruma City would be a plus for the Okinawa people, who would be happy to see bases being returned as part of the deal. He’s presented the plan to Shokichi Kina, an Upper House of Councilors member from Okinawa. Kina, who is a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, concedes there’s political opposition to keeping the Marine Corps’ Futenma operations on Okinawa, but acknowledges that the Katsuren plan’s inclusion of Japanese Air Self Defense Units in the new basing plan could help overcome local opposition.

Okinawa’s governor was quick to voice his opposition to the proposal being labeled the Katsuren plan, but was more willing to consider that than another idea for moving the new airfield’s runways onto land at Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa’s Henoko District of Nago City. “This is totally incomprehensible,” he told Hirano during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s office. “People live on the land, and a Marine airfield build on land closer to them is unthinkable.” He called building the airfield’s runways on land as opposed to on reclaimed land in Oura Bay “rather more sensitive than on the sea.”

The Katsuren-White Beach concept is anything but new. Its outline is remarkably similar to one initially proposed by Okinawa’s business leaders more than a decade ago, and one that was re-surfaced again in 2005 under the tutelage of Robert Eldridge, who was an academic with Osaka University at the time. Eldridge called for combining the activities on Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Kinser, the U.S. Army’s Naha Military Port, and the Japanese Air Self Defense Forces at Naha International Airport on a single base to be built on reclaimed land off the Katsuren Peninsula.

Eldridge’s plan included building two 3,600-meter runways and a heliport on the sprawling base to be constructed on the artificial island. He also suggested plans based at Kadena Air Base could be shifted to Katsuren to reduce the number of noise complaints registered with Kadena Town and other nearby communities. A byproduct of the plan was that “the facility would relieve congestion on Route 58, along which Futenma, Naha Military Port and the Marines’ Camp Kinser lie,” he said. “From a military perspective,” Eldridge noted, “the facility is also ideal in that it’s closer to Kadena and other facilities and housing areas that, in event of a crisis, would permit operations and command and control functions to go more smoothly.”

An academic specializing in Japanese and U.S. relations, Eldridge recommended the Katsuren plan because he viewed the Henoko operation as being filled with problems with the Marines because of its distance from other facilities. “Even in normal times, the daily 90-minute commute envisioned with the Henoko move for some personnel stationed elsewhere on Okinawa is going to lead to stress,” he said, “as well as causing a drop in morale, an increase in accidents, and a decrease in the ability to respond to crises.”

The 2005 Katsuren concept was endorsed by some senior military officers on Okinawa, as well as senior business leaders with the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Even as talk about the White Beach-Katsuren idea unfolds, the leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party was calling on the Prime Minister to step down if he doesn’t honor his promise to resolve the Futenma issue by the end of May. Sadakazu Tanigaki, speaking to reporters in Nago City, said his LDP is considering a no-confidence motion against the Hatoyama Cabinet. He also heard local Nago City residents voice continued opposition to the plan for moving the Futenma facility to Camp Schwab.

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