Future of Okinawa base strains U.S.-Japanese alliance
By Blaine Harden
washington post foreign service
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A13
GINOWAN, JAPAN -- The people of Okinawa and the U.S. Marine Corps agree on at least one thing: The Futenma Marine air station is a noisy dinosaur that needs to move elsewhere -- and soon.
Smack in the middle of this densely packed city of 92,000 and taking up about a quarter of its land, the air base torments its neighbors with the howl of combat helicopters and the shudder of C-130 transport planes.
"The noise is unbearable," said Harumi Chinen, principal of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, where about 780 children study in buildings next to the airfield. "A school should be very comforting and safe. That is not the case here."
Where can the Marines and their earsplitting machines go? That question has triggered the most serious quarrel in the history of the traditionally harmonious U.S.-Japanese alliance, which last week marked its 50th anniversary.
The relocation question has exasperated the Obama administration and strained its dealings with a country that the United States is treaty-bound to protect in case of attack. Hanging in the balance is the future of a $26 billion deal between Japan and the United States to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and turn over several valuable tracts of urban land to the people of the island.
Worry, too, has spread across East Asia, as officials from South Korea to Australia have expressed concern about the future of the U.S. security role in the region.
The 14,200 Marines who train with aircraft from Futenma are the only mobile U.S. ground forces based in East Asia, said Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific. "They bring a lot of stability and security that allows the Asia Pacific region to be a relatively peaceful place," he said.
Yet even from a Marine point of view, staying at Futenma is not desirable. Decades of citizen complaints -- and the 2004 crash of a Marine helicopter into a nearby college campus, which miraculously killed no one -- have triggered flight restrictions that degrade the tactical utility of the Futenma base, especially in training Marines for night combat.
"These restrictions reduce the number of aircraft we can put up through a 24-hour day," said Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, Marine commander on this tropical island, which has a strategic perch between Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. "It is not a showstopper, but it is a factor."
Until last year, the Futenma problem had a treaty-guaranteed solution that pleased the Marines, soothed the allies and suited Tokyo: The air station would move to a new seaside home at Camp Schwab, in the thinly populated north of the island.
Democracy scuttled the deal. In August, Japanese voters tossed out the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for nearly 50 years and had agreed in 2006 on the relocation of the Marine base.
The winner of the election had other ideas about the future of the air station and Japan's relationship with the United States. The Democratic Party of Japan and its leader, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, campaigned on the claim that Japan had for too long been too passive in its U.S. dealings. To make the point, Hatoyama froze the base relocation plan, while suggesting that the Marines move their airfield off Okinawa and perhaps out of Japan altogether.
This delighted and energized many of Okinawa's 1.4 million people, who have long complained that they bear a disproportionate burden of their country's security alliance. Most of the 36,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan are based on Okinawa, and local unease over their presence has grown rapidly since 1996, when two Marines and a sailor raped a 12-year-old girl.
"With the new leadership in Tokyo, we have moved away from a relationship where the United States gives an order and Japan says, 'Yes,' " said Yoichi Ida, the mayor of Ginowan and an outspoken advocate of moving the air station out of this city and off the island. "If the Americans try to force their will upon us, obviously Japan-U.S. ties will not go very smoothly."
On Sunday, in a mayoral election in Nago, a northern city of 65,000 people that includes Camp Schwab, an anti-base challenger is running against an incumbent who supports the relocation plan. The outcome of the election is being closely watched in Tokyo and might influence a final decision on the future of the base, which Hatoyama promised last week would be made by May.
The Obama administration's position on the base issue has moderated substantially in the past three months. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned in November of serious consequences if Japan did not honor its 2006 promise. But this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced patient understanding, saying, "We are respectful of the process that the Japanese government is going through."
Still, the White House is continuing to press for the existing relocation plan. "An alliance requires sacrifices on both sides, and it is going to make some people unhappy," a senior administration official said.
When the United States completed its 8,000-foot runway at Futenma air station, there were no problems with complaining neighbors. It was 1947, and the base was surrounded by farmland.
But amid the rubble of Okinawa, where a ferocious World War II battle between U.S. and Japanese forces had razed much of island, the base created jobs, attracted businesses and sowed seeds for what would become a thriving city.
Futenma No. 2 Elementary School moved next to the airfield to be near the working families that encircled the base, said Chinen, the principal.
Marine officials say encroachment on the airfield is simply not their fault. "Why aren't you asking why the Japanese didn't have better zoning laws?" said Robling, the Marine commander. "They built a school right under the runway. What were they thinking?"
Japanese aviation law requires "clear zones" around civilian airports, but the rules do not apply to U.S. military bases. Neither Japanese nor U.S. authorities stopped local people from building beside the base.
Whatever the reason for encroachment, Robling and other U.S. officials acknowledge that it has long since made Futenma a poor site for a military airfield.
But if helicopters end up having no place else to go on Okinawa, Robling said, the Marine mission in Japan and East Asia would be dangerously compromised.
If helicopters were based on Guam or main islands of Japan, he said, "it would be like infielders training on the West Coast and outfielders training on the East Coast. On game day, everyone shows up and is somehow expected to play together."
Marine training issues, though, do not get much sympathy at Futenma No. 2 Elementary, where teachers are instructed to remain silent and not shout over the roar of passing aircraft.
"My personal wish is for the air base to move outside of Okinawa," Chinen said. "But who would raise his hand to take it? No one."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.