GUAM – Now that they’ve agreed how to configure the runway for a new Marine air base on Okinawa’s northeastern coast, Washington and Tokyo say they will decide construction details at a high level meeting in June.
Japan Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto visited Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima on May 28 to deliver the message: construction details for the new V-shaped, two-runway airstrip at Henoko in Okinawa’s Nago region “will be decided at the next Two-Plus-Two meeting.” This, despite the reiteration by Mr. Nakaima that: “It’s impossible to carry out a relocation plan that doesn’t have the approval of local residents.”
A new replacement facility that would relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Nago has long been delayed by Tokyo politicking and Okinawan opposition. But Tokyo and Washington have redoubled their efforts in recent weeks to clear the way for a productive planning session on the new facility at next month’s meeting of their Defense and Foreign ministers in Washington.
The new air base is one linchpin in a massive plan to realign 30,000 U.S. forces throughout Asia Pacific, including the transfer of at least 8,600 Marines and their dependants and support staff from Okinawa to Guam. The deal stipulates that Futenma’s flight operations, now carried out in a crowded residential area in Ginowan, will move to the less densely populated coastal area in Nago, following the initial U.S.-Japan agreement reached in 2006.
While Okinawans welcome closure of the Futenma base and the reduction of troops that would result from the realignment, they remain opposed to hosting a replacement facility. The issue has put Okinawa at odds with Tokyo, even as Washington has continued to press its ally to follow through on their 2006 pact. The Okinawa governor does have the authority through the Japan Public Water Reclamation Act to block construction of the runway planned for reclaimed land on Henoko’s Oura Bay. However, the central government can retake control of the issue through an act of Parliament to amend the law.
Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on May 22, Kurt Campbell, Washington’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that the U.S. is standing firm and moving forward on its plans for building a replacement facility in Okinawa.
When President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan met on the sidelines of the G8 meeting in France last week, National Security Council senior director for Asian Affairs, Daniel Russel, said: “The two leaders agreed that it’s important for Japan to continue its efforts to follow through on the agreement of last May to implement the realignment road map on Okinawa in order to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance and the basing arrangements are on a solid footing as we continue to work to enhance, revitalize and modernize our alliance.”
The two countries are expected to reaffirm the relocation plan for the Marine base while agreeing to postpone the now impractical 2014 deadline for completing it at next month’s Two-Plus-Two meeting. A more likely target date may be beyond 2021, according to a Marine planning document obtained by GuamBuildupNews.com.
In the document dated March 24, U.S. Marine Corps Pacific Division policy director Bryan Wood notes that the latest 2021 completion date for the new facility “will likely slide” again. Delays are expected during landfill permitting, the document states, which may take one to two years. Construction issues may also contribute to delays, which are set to include the demolition of up to 94 percent of existing structures in the Henoko’s Oura Bay area.
Tokyo and Washington’s recent decisions on the new airstrip design move the diplomatic process forward so that more specific and detailed planning can take place. However, Mr. Wood told GuamBuildupNews.com in an April interview, the next step is “when they start approving the landfill — that’s forward progress. This will drive the timeline.”
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