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Panetta thinks there’ll be progress on Futenma

Date Posted: 2011-10-28

“It’s taken a great deal of time to be able to move forward with it, but I believe that we now see some real progress in what Japan is doing,” is how the U.S. Secretary of Defense sees movement on the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station relocation following a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister.

Leon Panetta was optimistic about the future following his meetings in Tokyo Tuesday with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his principal Cabinet ministers. Making his first visit to Japan since becoming U.S. Defense Secretary, Panetta appeared confident the controversial plan for relocating Futenma to northern Okinawa will ultimately become a reality. “It’s very important to us that the EIS be completed before the end of the year,” Panetta said of the Environmental Impact Statement that the central government must present to Okinawa’s governor.

The U.S. ~ Japan plan is to move Futenma from a densely populated area of downtown Ginowan City in central Okinawa to a rural area of Nago City in the north, where the base would be constructed on the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, with a pair of V-shape runways, each 2,500-meters long, would jut out into Oura Bay. The plan’s been opposed by citizens and the Okinawa government on political, environmental and economic grounds, with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima insisting the base not be built, and that Futenma instead be moved off Okinawa.

“My goal will be to ensure that steps are being taken to fulfill that commitment,” says Panetta, calling it “important for both the United States and Japan to move forward and ensure that the agreement, the elements of that agreement, are met.” The plan called for completing the new base by the end of 2014, but that date’s been pushed back because of opposition that’s already cost to prime ministers their jobs.

Noda’s government has loosened the rules for awarding subsidies to Okinawa, removing specific requirements on how the funds are to be used, in hopes of winning over the prefecture government and Governor Nakaima. That proviso, Tokyo hopes, will sway Nakaima to support the Futenma relocation project.

Nakaima may have some anti-base support even from the opposition. Sadakazu Tanigaki, leader of the biggest opposition Liberal Democratic Party, says there might be a need to review the controversial plan. “Japan is in a very difficult situation,” he says, and “we might have to think whether there are options other than Henoko.” The LDP leader says “what the LDP government pieced together like glasswork was torn down by the Hatoyama government,” referring to the regime of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan when Yukio Hatoyama was prime minister. “It would be very difficult to put it back together.”

Still, Tanigaki conceded during a television interview, that Okinawa is geopolitically very important at a time when China is expanding its Naval power, and “there might be no option other than Henoko. I’m wondering myself.”

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