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Gov’t, U.S. pressure Okinawa Gov. on MCAS relocation plan

By: Michael March

Date Posted: 1999-08-07

Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine’s plan to settle the relocation of MCAS Futenma at his “own pace” appears to be on shaky ground as both the Japanese government and the United States increase diplomatic pressure to finalize the long-standing issue by year’s end.

Comments by U.S. President Bill Clinton and most recently those by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, coincide with calls from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry to ensure a replacement site is found far quicker than Inamine had projected.

During his visit to the nation’s capital last week, Cohen said: “We're hoping we can make significant progress by having it scheduled, perhaps agreed to, in the next six months or so. We need to set the time frame in which it could all be resolved.”

In response to Cohen's proposal, Inamine said concern over the welfare and safety of those Okinawans living within close proximity to the base would influence his decision, adding however, that timing would not.

“We should look back on the course of the agreement on returning Futenma, there being danger to the lives of locals living so close to the military airfield. I wish to take a responsible approach to solve the problem as early as possible. Timing is not the primary topic,” the Okinawa Times reported Saturday.

Although it appears Inamine will not be rushed into making a decision, the central government may have another agenda in mind. On Monday, the Yomiuri Shimbun quoted one Foreign Ministry official as saying, “we want to choose a site by September or October.”

Armitage, in a recent Ryukyu Shimpo article, said “the location should be decided by February or March before the Japanese and the Okinawa Prefectural Governments get busy for summit preparations.”

The former assistant secretary of defense also agreed with the relocation to northern Okinawa, where it is less populated, and where local economies would be strengthened by the “construction of a new facility.”

In a Japan Times interview Ambassador Foley said, “I think it would be an important step if we could see some progress by the end of the year.” Clearly, the U.S. wants the relocation issue settled before the G8 economic summit of the world’s top industrialized nations takes place in Nago in July 2000.

This strategy is not without foundation, as both Okinawa and the U.S. face elections next year, a situation most likely to limit discussions on the issue.

But the ball may still be in Inamine’s court. One attempt by the central government, to construct a floating heliport off Nago last year, failed miserably when Nago residents vehemently opposed the plan, leading Okinawa Development Agency head Hiromu Nonaka to state that the issue would be left to the “consideration of Governor Inamine” while “taking into account the Okinawa government's efforts toward a settlement.”

After his recent return from a fact-finding mission to the G8 conference in Cologne, Inamine said the “question of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma” must be “clearly separated from the summit as we steadily proceed on the matter based on the consensus of Okinawans.”

Also at the center of the relocation issue is Ginowan City Mayor Morimitsu Higa, who recently said, “I got the impression that (Inamine) wants to tackle the issue after the summit meeting.” MCAS Futenma is located in the heart of Ginowan, a highly populated city north of the capital Naha.

Yet residents in the northern part of the island, including Nago, have already voiced their concerns about the construction of a replacement facility for Futenma. They are also against any government plan to use the G8 summit as some form of deadline to have the ongoing relocation issue resolved.

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