Finding alternate location for Futenma stalls talks as deadline nears
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Finding an alternative location for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma continues to be a sticking point in bilateral talks on realigning U.S. troops in Japan as a late October deadline for an interim report nears.
U.S. and Japanese officials are said to be struggling with two plans to relocate the Marine air station to a new facility in northeast Okinawa, according to recent Japanese press reports citing anonymous sources on both sides of the negotiating table.
It is being reported that the Japanese favor a heliport to be built on Camp Schwab, extending into the shallow waters of Oura Wan Bay, and that the U.S. is leaning toward a facility with a 1,500-meter runway to be built on reclaimed land and part of a reef on the other side of Camp Schwab, in waters off the Henoko district of Nago.
Officials with U.S. Forces Japan and the Japan’s Defense Facilities Administration Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Stars and Stripes the two proposals are among several options being considered. They would not talk about the details.
President Bush, as part of a visit to Asia next month, plans to be in Kyoto, Japan, on Nov. 15-16 for a meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
The two governments had agreed on a larger airport with a 2,500-meter runway to be built off Henoko, but opponents of the plan have disrupted an environmental survey of the waterbed and construction has not begun.
U.S. and Japanese officials from Tokyo arrived on Okinawa on Sunday to conduct a field survey of the two proposed sites. The alternate plans are seen as a means to provide for an earlier closure of MCAS Futenma.
The Futenma issue dates to 1996, when the bilateral Special Action Committee on Okinawa issued a report that called for the return of 21 percent of the land on Okinawa covered by U.S. military bases. As part of the plan, MCAS Futenma was to be closed within seven years.
Last week, D. Kathleen Stephens, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arrived on Okinawa for an aerial tour of U.S. bases on Okinawa and a meeting with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine. During the meeting she emphasized that Marine air operations had to be relocated within the prefecture and the relocation was key to any other moves to reduce the U.S. troop strength on Okinawa, according to local press accounts.
A spokesman for the U.S. Consulate in Naha confirmed the visit took place and that the published accounts were accurate. In an exclusive interview with reporters from the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo, Stephens said the main points being discussed were finding an alternate site for MCAS Futenma within the prefecture, making a “substantial” cut in the number of troops, and closing U.S. bases in southern Okinawa.
At a news conference in Tokyo last Friday, Defense Agency Chief Yoshinori Ohno said differences remain on the Futenma relocation, but the target date for an interim report was about Oct. 29. The two sides had originally set a September date for the report, but the plan was pushed back due to the special Sept. 11 election for Japan’s House of Representatives.