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Futenma move not coming any time soon

Date Posted: 2011-01-14

The United States and Japan have long agreed that moving Futenma Marine Corps Air Station was a necessity, but political realities in Okinawa now have senior American officials backing off the timelines for any such move.

The language expressed this week by both America's Secretary of Defense and a senior State Department official was couched in political niceties, but the bottom line that filtered through, at least in the minds of many government officials, is that if the planned relocation isn't feasible or acceptable to the Okinawa people, then the airbase with its 4,000 Marines, helicopters and aircraft that use the 9,000-foot runway will simply have to stay in Ginowan City. The White House insists there's been no position change on the need for moving Futenma and keeping U.S. troops and bases in Japan and Okinawa, but other political challenges are taking top billing.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says "We do understand that it is a politically complex matter in Japan, and we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account." Gates, speaking during a Japan visit, says the commitment to move Futenma remains, but "we hope to move forward with the relocation of U.S. forces in Okinawa in ways that are more appropriate to our strategic posture, while reducing the impact on the communities nearby."

Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, during June ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Okinawa in Spring 1945, apologized to Okinawa citizens for "the burden" they bear in maintaining U.S. bases. The relocation of Futenma from densely populated Ginowan City in central Okinawa to the Henoko district of Nago City in the lightly populated northern reaches of the island has been contentious, with Okinawans opposed to the move and demanding it be moved away from Okinawa. Kan hade told Okinawans "I apologize for the burden, and I promise to seriously try all the more to reduce Okinawa's burden related to the U.S. bases and eliminate associated dangers. The Japan-U.S. agreement, however, links the Futenma move with another burden-reducer, moving 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is saying much the same thing. Kurt Campbell insists the U.S. "is not going to again get into the business of setting deadlines and timing" on relocating Futenma. He says Japan and the U.S. have spent a lot of time focusing on relocation, while losing ground on other complex issues including changes to the East Asia and Pacific region security posture. Japan was supposed to have worked out the deadline before the Prime Minister visits U.S. President Barack Obama this spring, but now both sides say that won't happen. There is a two-plus-two meeting between the two government that's coming up, and Campbell suggests there'll be no pressure on Japan to solve the relocation problem before the President and Prime Minister meet. The issues were to have been resolved before the two-plus-two meetings.

Campbell avoided commenting on Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaim's demands the relocation be moved outside his prefecture, adding credence to the most recent U.S. positions that nothing will happen before the established 2014 deadline. That would impact plans to shift the Marines to Guam, where Japan's already agreed to pick up more than $6 billion of the relocation costs, plus another $420 million in loans to shore up Guam's ailing infrastructure.

Tokyo, for its part, hasn't found a key to gaining support with Okinawans.

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