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Japan mulls large-scale Futenma repairs

Date Posted: 2012-03-09

Japan believes the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma needs to be repaired, regardless of the ongoing negotiations with Washington on its relocation, and has agreed with Washington that the work cannot wait.

‘If it (the base) becomes too old to operate, it could pose risks to local residents,’ Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said at a press conference. It is first time for a senior Japanese government official to refer publicly to the need for a large-scale revamp of the Futenma base.

The Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed to transfer the controversial base, located in a congested area of Ginowan, Okinawa, to the Henoko coastal area in Nago, also in Okinawa, but the two governments are unlikely to make progress on the relocation issue due to strong local opposition.

Against this background, Genba apparently sees the need to repair the base in order to remove potential risks there. At the press conference, Genba also emphasized that the Futenma base should not stay at the current location forever, stating ‘Even before the ongoing talks on the realignment of U.S. forces, such repairs have been routinely carried out to ensure operational security.’

Okinawa residents are hoping to move the U.S. base, currently located in a crowded residential district in Ginowan, out of the prefecture, although Tokyo and Washington have already agreed on a plan to relocate it to the coast of the Marines' Camp Schwab in Nago. Gemba stressed that the government believes the base should not be kept at its current site in the densely populated area, even if repair work is done there. ‘The base cannot be operated if it gets old and becomes dangerous,’ Gemba said, noting that necessary maintenance and repairs of U.S. military facilities are intended to ensure the safety of people living near them.

The agreement to carry out extensive repairs at the Futenma base was struck during a meeting of senior foreign and defense officials in late February, according to sources. Gemba also suggested that Japan is ready to pay part of the bill to fix the base, saying that Tokyo has spent funds for repair work at U.S. military facilities under a bilateral security accord.

However, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka, speaking at a news conference, denied that the two countries reached such an agreement during the senior officials' meeting in Tokyo. The two countries are now in talks to review the 2006 road map on how to redeploy some of the Marines on the Japanese southern island of Okinawa to Guam.

Under the road map plan, making tangible progress on the relocation of the Futenma base was a precondition for transferring around 8,000 of the 18,000 Marines and 9,000 dependents from the Japanese island to the U.S. territory. Tokyo and Washington have already decided that the transfer of some of the troops is no longer contingent on the relocation of Futenma's functions to a replacement facility on the coast of the Marines' Camp Schwab, given fierce local opposition.

With the new policy, there are now worries in Okinawa over the air station becoming fixed at its present location in Ginowan. Since 1996, when Japan and the United States first agreed on the relocation of the base within the prefecture, Tokyo has not contributed funding to its maintenance, excluding spending at a minimum cost for essential safety measures.

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