Sunday, November 18, 2007

US Base Building on Back Burner

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007
U.S. base rejiggering on back burner
Staff writer

OSAKA — Two years ago, when George W. Bush met with then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Kyoto, the U.S. president was asked about a recently concluded preliminary agreement on reorganizing American military bases in Japan.

Bush replied that it was up to Japan to expedite the agreement, which centers on construction of an airstrip in northern Okinawa for relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan.

Six months later, a final report said once the Futenma replacement facility became operational in 2014, the U.S. Marine Corps contingent at the base would be downsized by 8,000 marines and their dependents, who may number about the same. Their new home would be Guam.

As Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda heads to Washington Thursday to meet with Bush, however, the realignment agreement is stalled, and doubts on both sides are growing over when, or even if, the Futenma replacement facility will materialize.

The sticking point in the agreement is the construction of two 1,800-meter runways, in a V-pattern, adjacent to Camp Schwab on the northern part of the main island near Henoko. Current plans call for the runways to be built close to the shoreline, which the prefecture fears will create noise pollution problems.

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who was elected last November, announced his opposition to the current plan and demanded the facility be moved farther out on the peninsula and adjoining sea.

But the central government and the United States have refused to reconsider the plan. Last week, a meeting between Nakaima and central government officials in Tokyo failed to resolve the issue.

Over the past year, the central government has sent mixed signals to both Okinawa and the U.S. over whether it would compromise.

In January, then Defense Agency head Fumio Kyuma said he would be willing to scrap the runway configuration and build a single runway. However, both then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the U.S. said the V-configuration would move forward.

Last week, after a meeting between Okinawan officials and the central government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura indicated to reporters that Tokyo might be more flexible.

But two days later, following a visit to Japan by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Machimura told reporters it would be extremely difficult to meet Okinawa's demands.

Time is running out for both sides, though. Unless actual construction of the new facility begins within the next 18 months, it will be extremely difficult to meet the 2014 deadline.

In May, the central government began a preliminary environmental impact assessment off Camp Schwab. The work was carried out despite the presence of antibase protesters in the area who had prevented previous attempts to do a survey of the seabed.

But most observers of U.S.-Japan security relations agree ensuring the base reorganization takes place as scheduled by working with Okinawa is not a priority for either Fukuda or Bush.

With the U.S. presidential election next November and speculation mounting that Fukuda will dissolve the Lower House well before then, both leaders are expected to focus their attention this week on more immediate issues, including Japan's resumption of its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, there were about 43,000 U.S. service members and their dependents living in Okinawa as of the beginning of 2007. These included approximately 13,500 marines and 8,000 of their dependents at 16 bases and facilities. There were about 7,000 U.S. Air Force personnel and another 7,000 of their dependents at seven bases and facilities.

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