Analysts: Tokyo looking to buy Okinawa's support for relocated Marine base

CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force, prepare to depart Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on March 12, 2011, to provide assistance in the wake of the earthquakes and tsunami that struck Japan.



CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa  — A Japanese government plan to allocate billions of dollars in funding for Okinawa this year is intended to buy public support for keeping a U.S. Marine Corps base on the island, but is likely to fail in light of strong public opposition to the base, analysts say.

Under a budget plan hammered out this winter, Tokyo will give the small island prefecture $2.05 billion to spend as the local government sees fit and also increase its total annual funding by $826 million.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima negotiated the generous subsidies as part of the upcoming national budget. The island will receive $3.8 billion of the $3.9 billion in total funding it requested from Tokyo, even as the country reels from disaster and a currency crisis.

The governor and the central government say that the funding plan is not related to the relocation of the Futenma air station. However, Moritake Tomikawa, president of Okinawa International University, said the intentions behind the subsidies are clear.

“It is obviously an appeasement policy by the government,” Tomikawa said. “It was as if they are slapping your face with a thick bundle of green notes and people here are weary of such policy from the central government.”

The controversial funding plan comes as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration prepares to ask Okinawa for permission to build an offshore airfield — the next step in relocating U.S. Marine forces from the Futenma air station in urban Ginowan. But not even the cash infusion is likely to overcome growing public resentment toward Tokyo and convince the island to sign off on the troubled project, according to U.S. and Japanese observers.

“The central government is trying to grease the wheels … to convince the Okinawa government that it is in their best interest to grin and bear it,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “Okinawa can sure use the money, but I don’t think this is going to get the job done.”

The Noda administration promised the United States earlier in the year that it will finally make progress on the project to move the Futenma air base.

Last week, the nation’s defense minister was dismissed amid criticism of his comparison of the relocation effort to committing rape, calling up memories of the 1995 gang rape of a local elementary school student by U.S. servicemembers.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa later admitted he was not familiar with the details of the case, which further inflamed public outrage. Ichikawa was removed from office Friday by Noda after being censured by the opposition party.

Kingston said such incidents have helped crystallize Okinawans’ resentment toward the U.S.-Japan plan, and Tokyo’s tactic of showering local governments with funding to ease through unpopular initiatives is unlikely to work this time.

“I think it is different this time. I think the Okinawan public’s back is up,” he said. “They feel betrayed.”

The prefecture’s support — mainly that of the governor — will be key to moving on to the next phase of the project.

Nakaima has authority over any offshore reclamation projects in Okinawa and must give permission for the central government to fill in sea bottom for construction of a new V-shaped airfield planned for the Marine Corps near the city of Nago.

The Department of Defense has said it is now looking forward to getting the construction permits after the Noda administration delivered an environmental assessment of the offshore runways to the Okinawa government, a key step in the process. Nakaima must review the assessment and report back to Tokyo before making a decision on whether to allow the work. It is still unclear when his decision may come.

At one time, Tokyo might have been able to sway Nakaima with funding, but the governor has recently come out against hosting the U.S. air station, and the public outrage over the rape comments has eliminated any chance of turning back, said Jeffrey Hornung, an associate professor specializing in Japan and foreign policy and security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

“A year or two ago, it would have probably worked. I don’t see it working anymore,” said Hornung, who is an employee of the DOD but was not speaking on its behalf. “If he accepts the money, then the [Futenma] agreement, he will look like a complete sellout.”




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