x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

US base on Okinawa given green light to move

The nod from Okinawa, long a reluctant host to the bulk of US military forces in Japan, is an achievement for the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has promised a more robust military and tighter security ties with the United States amid escalating tension with China.

TOKYO // The governor of Japan’s Okinawa yesterday approved a controversial plan to relocate a US airbase to a less populous part of the southern island, but said he would keep pressing to move the base off the island.

The nod from Okinawa, long a reluctant host to the bulk of US military forces in Japan, is an achievement for the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has promised a more robust military and tighter security ties with the United States amid escalating tension with China.

Sceptics, however, said it remained far from clear whether the relocation – stalled since the move was first agreed upon by Washington and Tokyo in 1996 – would in fact take place given persistent opposition from Okinawa residents, many of whom associate the US bases with crime, pollution and noise.

The approval came a day after Mr Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine infuriating China and South Korea, and prompting concern from the US about deteriorating ties between the Asian neighbours.

The shrine is seen in parts of Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, said he had approved a central government request for a landfill project at the new site, on the Henoko coast near the town of Nago.

His approval for that project – required by law and a first step towards building the replacement facility – was the last procedural barrier to eventually replacing the US Marines Futenma airbase in the crowded town of Ginowan.

“The government has recently met our requests in compiling a plan to reinvigorate Okinawa,” Mr Nakaima said.

“We felt that the Abe government’s regard for Okinawa is higher than any previous governments’.”

The governor said that he still believed that the quickest way to relocate the Futenma airbase would be to move it to an existing facility with runways outside Okinawa.

About 2,000 people gathered in front of the Okinawa government building to protest against Mr Nakaima’s decision, with a few hundred of them staging a sit-in at the lobby of the office building.

The US and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma base but plans for a replacement stalled in the face of opposition in Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the US forces in Japan. Okinawa was occupied by the US after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945 until 1972.

* Reuters