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Japan told Futenma change requires Okinawans’ okay

Date Posted: 2010-03-24

Japan’s Prime Minister may be finding the hole he’s digging for himself over the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station relocation may prove to be deeper than he thought, as the United States is sending new signals it won’t blindly accept changes to the 2006 agreement without locals’ consent.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is in meetings this week with his Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hirofumi Hirano, as well as the Foreign Minister and Defense Minister over where to relocate the controversial air station. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada have offered the Prime Minister varied advice over how to end the dispute that began when Hatoyama campaigned last year on a pledge to remove Futenma’s air operations from Okinawa.

“It is unlikely we will reach a definite conclusion” this week, Hatoyama said of the meetings, adding, “I will eventually present my own intention to the public, but the time has not yet come.” In rejecting the plan agreed to by the Japanese and U.S. governments in May 2006, Hatoyama promised to come up with an alternative. Efforts to find a spot outside Okinawa faltered, sending the Prime Minister and his team to a pair of ideas; one is to keep the Henoko idea using Camp Schwab as the base airfield, but bringing the runways onto land instead of locating the two V-shape 1,500-meter runways in Oura Bay.

A second concept is to create a massive landfill on Okinawa’s east coast between White Beach and Katsuren Peninsula, then use the newly created acreage for a replacement airfield for Futenma, and also for Japanese Air Self Defense Forces currently at Naha International Airport. Another part of the scheme would relocate Naha Military Port from prime real estate in downtown Naha City.

The United States, diplomatic sources say, is signaling ‘not so fast’ to Hatoyama’s plans, telling the fledgling Japanese government the only way it will agree to any change is if the Okinawan communities involved agree first. The question as to whether that would happen is very unclear. Washington is expecting the Foreign Minister to put forth one of the sites as an alternative to Henoko within the month. Okada is to visit the U.S. as early as this weekend for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Washington is bracing for a rejection of any alternative plans, bringing to a halt all elements of the relocation process, including that of shifting 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. If the U.S. refuses to buy into a Hatoyama plan for relocating Futenma, it is likely the airbase would remain active in Ginowan City. Prime Minister Hatoyama wants to settle the issue by May, but diplomatic sources say that’s becoming less likely.

The U.S. is encouraging Japan to stay on course with the 2006 agreement and continue with the existing plan, which officials say is the only logical course. That plan would have Futenma relocated to Camp Schwab in Nago City’s Henoko District, with runway construction on landfill.

Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is saying America thinks the current plan is “the best” but says the U.S. “remains open to other suggestions and ideas.” Diplomatic sources say the U.S. will not outright reject whatever plan is set forth by Hatoyama’s administration as it tries to avoid conflict.

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