Japanese FM pushes for swift U.S. base realignment plan in Okinawa

19:01, November 16, 2009      

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Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada visited U.S. Kadena Air Base on Monday, telling local government officials that he sees the base as a possible site for the relocating of a nearby U.S. Marine Corps' air station.

Okada's two-day trip to Japan's southernmost prefecture, his first since becoming minister, was made with the intention of finding an expeditious solution on the airbase relocation issue, a subject that is increasingly weighing on U.S.-Japan security ties.

"I understand extremely well that we cannot take much time," Okada said. "We cannot put it off that long," Okada, who believes the issue can be resolved far earlier than the original 2014 deadline for the relocation, said, alluding to the possibility of a conclusion to be reached as early as the end of this year.

Japanese Premier Yukio Hatoyama, whilst conceding an expeditious resolution to the relocation issue must be found, in light of no clear current policy on the issue and ardent resistance from Washington, has stated that more time needs to be taken on this highly contentious and emotive issue -- one which sparked mass-protests in Kadena earlier this month.

Okada, despite Hatoyama's sentiments, has been intensively studying the feasibility of swiftly merging the heliport functions of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station with the nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base, though the idea is unpopular with Washington (who have urged Japan to abide by an existing bilateral accord that took years for the two nations to reach a consensus on), as well as the local population living close to Kadena base.

"The idea to merge Kadena with the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station, is one plan that I am considering," Okada told a meeting of government officials in the town of Kadena on Monday.

However, under the current bilateral accord between Japan and the U.S., the heliport functions of Futemma Air Station, located in the downtown Ginowan district, are set to move to a less densely populated area in Nago, northern Okinawa by 2014. The plan involves constructing two runways in a V-shape in the coastal areaof Camp Schwab.

Both Okada and Hirokazu Nakaima, the governor of Okinawa, agreed that an early agreement is needed on the relocating of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station, which is currently located in a densely populated residential area.

Okada, however, met resistance from Kadena Mayor Tokujitsu Miyagi, who said on Monday that it is impossible for his town to accept the merger proposal.

Nakaima, who basically accepted the initial pact between the two countries (2006 Japan-U.S. accord), reminded Okada that there are "strong expectations" among the people in Okinawa and that the government should work to move Futemma outside Okinawa as Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan has advocated before becoming the ruling party.

Hatoyama, who came to power in September, has caused some consternation to Washington by saying he is reviewing the 2006 agreement to close one base on Okinawa and build a replacement facility in a less populated area of the island.

Hatoyama has stated that Japan may instead push to move the base off the island completely, perhaps even out of the country, with the island of Guam put forward as a possible alternative, to lighten the burden on Okinawa residents, who have long complained of the heavy US military presence.

Kadena Air Base is the largest U.S. air base in East Asia. It has two 3,700-meter runways and is home to some 50 F-15 fighters, air refueling tankers, rescue helicopters and other aircraft.

Noise, pollution, accidents, illness and crime have been cited by local residents as just some of the reasons they want the facility, which occupies 80 percent of the entire municipality, tobe moved.

Consolidating the heliport functions of Futemma to the Kadena Air Base is an idea that has already been considered and dismissedin past negotiations between Japan and the United States, most recently by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who visited Tokyo last month for preliminary talks on the subject.

"We've looked over the years at all these alternatives and they are either politically untenable or operationally unworkable, so we need to proceed with the agreement as negotiated," Gates said. "There really are no alternatives to the arrangement that was negotiated."

Source: Xinhua
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