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Officials hopeful for a troops realignment deal this week

Date Posted: 2006-04-07

With a March 31st deadline having failed, U.S. and Japanese officials are meeting in Washington in hopes of hammering out a final accord on realigning American troops and bases in Japan.

Vice-ministerial level talks in the U.S. capitol end today after three-days of discussion, with opinions mixed as to the likelihood of success. Several difficult issues involving Okinawa remain on the table, and neither the two governments nor Okinawa politicians seem willing to back down.

The proposal for relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Ginowan to Camp Schwab, in the Nago City district, continues to draw fire from Okinawa’s governor, Nago City, and a smattering of government and civic groups from across the island. Tokyo is racheting the level of pressure on the local officials, knowing the new airfield is a cornerstone in getting 8,000 U.S. Marines off Okinawa.

Nago City assemblyman Yasuhiro Miyagi says the government “thinks they can implement this, but I think it’s impossible.” Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga disagrees, saying he is “respecting local opinions as much as possible while focusing on the government plan.” Nago City Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro adds that he is continuing discussions, “standing face to face with the government while representing the views of Nago City.”

Talks Tuesday between Nukaga and Shimabukuro produced little substance, with the Director General telling reporters they couldn’t reach any agreement. Nukaga reportedly made a new offer on shifting the proposed runway ten degrees counterclockwise to lessen the impact on the small towns and villages in the area.

Shimabukuro countered, at the same news conference, with renewed appeals for the government to create a plan that eliminates all flights over his communities.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s Okinawa chapter is questioning the wisdom of Governor Keiichi Inamine’s continued opposition to the entire troop realignment plan, suggesting Okinawa may be sending a wrong signal, or mixed signals at best, to Tokyo. The Okinawa Federation suggests the governor should openly engage in more serious negotiations with the government to settle the impasse.

The latest opposition to the new airfield is the runway location. The Defense Agency has already agreed to adjust the angle of the runway to move aircraft away from some communities. Nago City hints it would agree to the deal if the runway was built out over Oura Bay, something protesters vehemently oppose. The original Henoko plan was scuttled because of environmental protests over protecting dugong and coral in the bay.

The $8~10 billion cost of moving the Marines off Okinawa is another stumbling block to an agreement, which officials would like to have by day’s end. The U.S. wants Japan to cover 75% of the costs, while Japan is balking at anything more than half, and that money being principally in the form of loans instead of outright grants. Surveys of Japanese citizens show more than half are opposed to their government paying for moving American Marines out of Okinawa.

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