Deal to Move Okinawa Base Wins Approval
By Hiroko Tabuchi and Thom Shanker, NY Times, December 27, 2013
TOKYO—A long-simmering dispute between the United States and Japan over the fate of a Marine base on Okinawa seemed to have been resolved on Friday when the governor of the prefecture gave his approval to move the base to a remote area.
The agreement would bolster efforts by the Pentagon to rebalance American military forces across the Asia-Pacific region and by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to raise his country’s strategic posture and check the growing military influence of China.
Amid protests against keeping the base on Okinawa, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved a landfill on which much of the base would be built, clearing the way for the relocation.
But in a reflection of the controversy surrounding his decision, Mr. Nakaima said later Friday that he was personally skeptical of the planned location for the new base and that he would prefer that it be moved out of the region altogether, as many Okinawans want. Protesters opposed to the base have branded Mr. Nakaima a traitor for reversing his previous opposition to the relocation plan.
Mr. Nakaima also said he would call for the closure of the old base in five years, even though the plan lays out a relocation process that lasts twice as long.
"I gave my legal approval. But the relocation will not be easy," Mr. Nakaima said at a news conference broadcast live on national television. "In fact, I don’t think its feasibility is very high. I think moving the base outside Okinawa is a better plan."
Mr. Nakaima’s approval of the landfill was a breakthrough after what had been longstanding opposition on Okinawa to the plan to move the Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma, on the prefecture’s main island, to the north of the island.
"I thank Mr. Nakaima for the brave decision," Mr. Abe said in Tokyo. He said that the government would "continue to do what it can to reduce the burden" of the base on local residents. Much would depend on future negotiations with the United States on the move, he added.
The original agreement to move the base, which is in a heavily populated area, was reached in 1996 after the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by American servicemen.
That fueled a local protest movement in Okinawa that advocated ousting the Marines from the island and even suggested that Okinawa declare its independence from Japan. Then there were concerns about the effects of building a new base in an environmentally sensitive area on the island’s coast.
The concerns delayed further progress on the agreement. A 2009 pledge by Yukio Hatoyama, who briefly served as prime minister, to move the base off Okinawa, perhaps to another part of Japan, confused the issue even more.
But since his return to the prime minister’s office a year ago, Mr. Abe had pressed Okinawan officials to finally give the go-ahead. In a meeting on Wednesday in Tokyo, Mr. Abe unveiled a set of measures to reduce the burden of the American bases on Okinawa, together with promises of financial support to the prefecture, Japan’s poorest.
That cleared the way for Mr. Nakaima’s approval of a landfill for the new base, Camp Schwab-Henoko Bay in the north.
For Mr. Abe, the approval comes at a time of increasing tensions with China that have led him to enhance security ties with the United States and to envision a bigger military role for Japan in the region.
Senior Defense Department officials said they viewed the agreement as critical to the Pentagon’s new strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
The approximately 18,000 Marines now stationed on Okinawa will drop to about 10,000 once the new base is completed over the next decade.
During that time, facilities are to be built that would shift about 5,000 Marines to Guam. There are also plans to eventually deploy about 2,500 Marines in Australia.
Those movements, Pentagon officials said, would create a more militarily useful distribution of Marines across the region, allowing them to be closer to a broader swath of territory as required for traditional security missions or disaster relief efforts.