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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa -- Following meetings Tuesday with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his Cabinet ministers in Tokyo, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised Japan’s recent progress toward relocating the controversial Futenma air station.

“It’s taken a great deal of time to be able to move forward with it, but I believe that we now see some real progress in what Japan is doing,” Panetta said.

His comments are a strong signal that the two countries believe the troubled effort to keep Marine Corps helicopters on Okinawa is back on track following years of delays.

Just last week, Japan announced that an environmental assessment would be completed by the end of the year -- a move that could clear the way for construction to begin on the new base despite local opposition.

“It’s very important to us that the EIS be completed before the end of the year,” Panetta said during a press conference Tuesday evening. “And as to the other steps involved in this process, the best I could tell you is ‘as soon as possible.’ ”

The United States has long been urging Tokyo for such progress. Panetta is on his first visit to region in an attempt to reaffirm the military commitment here and tamp down concerns over the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the pending defense budget cuts and the overall instability in the region.

However, experts warn the Futenma project still remains in doubt and, in the coming months, could face serious hurdles that threaten to kill the project outright.

Such moves could create strategic pitfalls for the United States just as it hopes to tout its Japan partnership and reassert itself in a region where allies, as well as potential adversaries such as China, are watching closely, analysts say.

The Japanese government has been unable to stem local opposition to the project and is now considering nearly $4 billion in annual no-strings-attached payments to the Okinawa government as it works to draft a national budget by the end of December. The payments are ostensibly for economic development on the depressed island yet not connected to Futenma.

“We are really down to the last few months on this project,” said Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

The money could be the last good hope of getting Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, an outspoken opponent, to sign off on the project to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less populated area farther north on the remote island prefecture and away from a populated urban area, Green said.

“People think the only way he can do it [accept the base] is if there is a larger context. He needs to hear Tokyo’s plan for developing Okinawa with financial aid,” Green said. “In Tokyo, the central government believes they have a chance to persuade him. It is a very delicate game because they can’t say [publicly that the aid and Futenma] are linked.”

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers will be watching those negotiations closely as this year winds down.

Many Congressmen have doubts about funding the Futenma move amid the ongoing uncertainty in Japan and a pending U.S. budget crunch. The Senate has already proposed to halt any funding in the coming year for the air station relocation as well as a larger plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan and move about 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Green said a failure by Tokyo to approve billions in new payments to Okinawa and win over Nakaima would almost certainly convince U.S. lawmakers that the project is unworkable and lead to a strategic failure.

Past faltering on the Futenma issue has emboldened Russia, and a complete failure could send signals of weakness to U.S. allies in the region as well as China, he said.

“Declaring ‘game over’ would be a big mistake,” Green said.

A misstep by Japan while negotiating the billions of dollars in new aid to Okinawa could also have dangerous consequences for Japan and the U.S., said Kurayoshi Takara, professor of history at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.

Takara said Prime Minister Noda faces the difficult task of selling the new subsidies to cash-strapped Japanese taxpayers while maintaining that the payments are not a quid-pro-quo for Okinawan acceptance of the Futenma project.

“If he links the Futenma issue with government subsidies, it will spark outrage” among Okinawans, who will see it as an offensive bribe, Takara said.

Many on Okinawa still hold memories of suffering under the occupation of American forces following World War II and have pushed for years to have a reduction in U.S. forces on the island due to noise, flight accidents and crime by servicemembers. Today, the island hosts about one-half the U.S. forces deployed to the country under a bilateral security agreement.

“Once anti-military sentiment is ignited, what will become of the rest of the military bases here?” Takara said. “Closing Futenma is an issue of risk management for both governments.”

One way for the U.S. and Japan to defuse the issue is to abandon the relocation of Futenma to northern Okinawa, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

“I think Tokyo would be very grateful if Washington would bail them out of this dilemma,” he said.

Kingston said the 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate the air station has become a “zombie” project that keeps antagonizing the two countries but has no real chance of success because both are reluctant to consider modifications.

“A lot of people have a lot invested in the plan,” he said. “Finally, when they cobble together a deal, nothing can be changed. Once you modify one part of the agreement, what is to stop further modifications? And then you don’t have a roadmap anymore.”

Kingston said suggestions by senators this year that the Marine Corps flight operations at Futenma should be merged with nearby Kadena Air Base on Okinawa were a “sensible” alternative to the controversial current plan, though the Department of Defense has rejected the Kadena option repeatedly over the past 15 years.

Green and commanders in the Pacific say that mixing the helicopters into an Air Force fleet of fixed-wing aircraft would likely work during peace time, but could cause serious difficulties while waging wartime operations.

Meanwhile, they say, such a move would just shift concerns over helicopter noise and accidents to another U.S. base about 7 miles away, where more than 22,000 Japanese residents have already filed a class-action lawsuit over jet noise.

Kingston said the resistance to the Kadena move might be partly due to turf battles between the Marine Corps and Air Force, something that was also suggested this month by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

“The Air Force is like everybody else in Okinawa - they don’t want the Marines next door,” Kingston said. “Compared to the other options on the table, it is probably the least bad one.”

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