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Japanese, U.S. leaders posture over settling Futenma issue

Date Posted: 2010-06-18

Everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Defense to the Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministers are staking positions on the now-planned move of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to northern Okinawa, and the thinking isn’t as far apart as some observers had thought.

Japan’s Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, says he knows the move is necessary, but is promising to work hard to gain understanding and support from the Okinawa people. Okada, who was Foreign Minister in Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet, and one of the architects of the agreement signed in Washington last month agreeing to stick with a 2006 plan to move the controversial base to the Henoko area of Nago City, with airbase elements on Camp Schwab, says maintaining deterrence and reducing Okinawa’s burden of hosting bases are both essential.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has publicly announced he’ll honor the May agreement signed by his predecessor that keeps the base in Okinawa. Kan is also promising to work hard to reduce the burdens carried by the people of Okinawa. He’s reassured U.S. President Barack Obama that the bilateral agreement will move forward as planned.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking in London, signaled a softening of the American position. “I think we have an obligation to work with our Japanese partners to see how we can together mitigate the impact in Okinawa of our military presence,” Gate said, “whether it’s having more training outside of Okinawa, or whether it’s noise-abatement procedures. Gates added that “there are some things we need to look at in terms of how we can be helpful.”

Japanese Defense Minister says the relocation must go forward, but says it will be difficult to gain consent from Okinawa before the end of August, as had been hoped. Toshimi Kitazawa says he doesn’t think the Kan administration can win the local consent needed to advance to the next phase. As the Cabinet moves toward the project, Kitazawa promised to provide as much transparency as possible on the issue.

Some expect the process to slow or stall until after the November gubernatorial elections in Okinawa. Hirokazu Nakaima, Okinawa’s governor, is expected to face a daunting challenge in the race from the Democratic Party of Japan. The governor must make the ultimate decision approving the project’s land reclamation element.

The former U.S. deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment has weighed in on the Futenma move, saying “perhaps it made some sense to look at the Camp Schwab design and minimize the requirement to construct out over the water because of my concerns about the coral reef and the potential environmental damage. “ Raymond DuBois says Japan’s concerns over environmental damage at the proposed site at Oura Bay are valid.

Dubois says he’s opposed to the construction because Oura Bay is home to the dugongs, a protected sea mammal species. Instead of the location already in the U.S.-Japan Agreement, he proposes moving the Futenma base away from Okinawa’s main island to Iejima, a small island off Okinawa’s west coast. That idea was rejected at the time of his original visit with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.

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