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Futenma discourse may unravel Marines’ Guam move

Date Posted: 2008-01-11

Bickering and arguing over the exact location of runways at the new airfield planned to replace Futenma Marine Corps Air Station is spilling over into the political arena, leaving many wondering what will ultimately happen.

The political perils of the airfield process escalated this past week with news that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said enough is enough, and rejected proposals for changes to a 2006 agreement on building the airfield with two V-shape runways on Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa. Gates told the Japanese Prime Minister “to modify the Futenma Air Station transfer plan means a breakdown of all of the plan,” a reference to numerous troop and base realignments linked to the new airfield’s construction.

Building a replacement for Futenma is the cornerstone of a multi-faceted agreement that would ultimately remove 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, move the Army’s I Corps headquarters to Japan from Washington, and shift American aircraft carrier based planes from Atsugi to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. Without the Henoko project, which is slated for construction to begin in 2009 following environment assessments, nothing else will happen.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was told during a meeting with Gates and U.S.President George Bush that there must not be changes to the bilateral agreement made in May 2006. Fukuda knows the timeframes, and knows the political difficulties his administration is having with Okinawa’s Governor to make this happen. Still, he promised to ‘steadily’ move forward.

Okinawa has refused to accept the plan for building the runways just offshore of Camp Schwab, in Henoko Bay. Governor Hirokazu Nakaima has been demanding the runways be moved 200 meters offshore, and the Defense Ministry has agreed to move as much as 80-90 meters out. While the move has signaled a willingness to talk with Okinawans, it hasn’t pleased the U.S. government.

And now there’s an additional problem entering the discussions: Nagashima Island. The small island sits in Henoko Bay, in the same area where the airfield runways are to be constructed. Okinawa Vice Governor says he’s “not heard anything from the government, but if they don’t shave Nagashima Island,’ it could work. Zenki Nakazagto says “the government has to pay some respect to local residents, consider their lives and environment and safety. I’d say it’s a good opinion.”

Defense Secretary Gates has told Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura the bilateral agreement must be honored. There are concerns that making changes to the Futenma element could lead to a more extensive revision of the agreement, stalling even more troop and base realignments. Once the new airfield at Camp Schwab is complete, the agreement stipulates 8,000 U.S. Marines will move to new bases in Guam. Japan is slated to pick up a large part of the costs for the move, projected for sometime after 2012.

Many are beginning to worry about Japan’s ability to make it all happen. The ruling Liberal Democracy Party has been weakened, and lost control of the Diet. That makes the likelihood of the government forcing changes on Okinawa unlikely. The Okinawa Governor must approve the offshore construction for the new base at Henoko. Some are calling the situation “glasswork”, meaning the agreement is too easy to foil or break.

Another round of meetings, the sixth Futenma Air Station Transfer Committee conference, is slated for later this month.

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