Okinawa passes resolution against replacement air station
July 20, 2008
NAHA, Okinawa — The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly has tossed what it hopes will be a monkey wrench into plans to realign U.S. troops in Japan.
The assembly passed a resolution Friday demanding the U.S. and Japan scrap plans to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new airport to be built on Camp Schwab and the waters of Oura Bay.
The Futenma Relocation Plan is regarded by both governments as the key to a 2006 agreement to realign troops in Japan. Once Marine air operations are moved to the new airport, scheduled to be complete by 2014, some 8,000 Marines and their families would move to Guam as a major drawdown of the Marine presence on Okinawa.
That would result in the closing of MCAS Futenma, Camp Kinser and part of Camp Foster.
Most Okinawan officials supported the realignment, objecting only to minor details of the plan to build two runways, shaped like a V, across the tip of the Henoko Peninsula and reclaimed land in Oura Bay. That changed last month when opposition parties with anti-base platforms gained a majority in the prefectural assembly.
The closure of MCAS Futenma has been an issue since 1996, when the U.S. and Japan agreed that the base, located in the middle of urban Ginowan, should be moved to a more rural location on Okinawa. A plan to move Marine operations to an off-shore facility in the waters of northeast Okinawa was successfully defeated by protesters in kayaks, canoes and small boats who interfered with an environmental survey.
" … [T]he people of Okinawa have continued to oppose construction of a new military facility at Henoko, which would lead to an additional further burden on the people of Okinawa and a permanent presence of the U.S. military on the island," the resolution stated.
The resolution was sent to Japanese and U.S. officials.
The resolution also cited environmental reasons for opposing the airport. Oura Bay is a principal feeding ground for the rare dugong, a saltwater manatee. The area’s coral would also be endangered, the resolution contends.
Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus, predicted the assembly’s action could backfire and have little impact on the ongoing talks between Tokyo and Okinawa over the project.
Instead, it could push Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, a member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, to drop his demands for making slight changes to the runway design.
"The motion adopted by the assembly means that Gov. Nakaima and the Tokyo government now have a common enemy," Gabe said. Nakaima had wanted the runways to be placed farther offshore, but without the support of the assembly he "will have no choice but to yield to Tokyo," Gabe said.
He predicted there will be no visible changes to the project now that the Okinawa government is split.
But opponents of the air facility thought otherwise. A roar of joy burst from some 100 anti-base supporters who packed the spectator balcony of the Prefectural Assembly Hall as passage of the resolution was announced.
"Now we have the momentum to stop construction," said Hiroshi Ashitomi, who leads the Anti-Heliport Council, one of several anti-base groups in attendance.
A senior official of the governor’s office said the resolution would have little impact on the ongoing talks between Okinawa and Tokyo officials concerning details of the airport plan.
"The governor has his own public promises and policies," said Masaru Machida, director of the governor’s Reversion Affairs Division. The prefectural government would continue to seek support and understanding from people of Okinawa on the project, he said.
Japanese governmental agencies had little comment concerning the resolution Friday.
"In accordance with an agreement made between U.S. and Japanese governments, we will steadily advance the project," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Okinawa Liaison Office.