Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel hails Okinawa base move as a 'milestone'

Decision to move station from populated area ends years of wrangling, but opposition remains

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 1:51am

A long-simmering dispute between the US and Japan over the fate of a military base on Okinawa was resolved yesterday when the governor of Okinawa gave his approval to move it to a remote area of the prefecture.

The agreement aids efforts to rebalance the military forces of the United States across the Asia Pacific region and by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to raise his country's strategic posture and check the growing military influence of China.

Okinawa 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 to building the replacement facility, was the last procedural barrier to eventually replacing the US marines' Futenma air base in the crowded town of Ginowan.

"The government has recently met our requests in compiling a plan to reinvigorate Okinawa. We felt that the Abe government's regard for Okinawa is higher than any previous governments'," Nakaima said.

The governor, however, added that he still believed that the quickest way to relocate the Futenma air base would be to move it to an existing facility with runways outside Okinawa.

Yet it will come at a political cost to Nakaima, whose decision could still face court challenges and protests. Opponents want the base off Okinawa completely.

"What the governor has done is unforgivable," said Yuichi Higa, the head of the assembly in Nago city, where the new marine base is to be built.

"Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads to stop this from happening."

About 2,000 protesters gathered at the Okinawa prefecture offices yesterday after the agreement became known. Some pushed into the building's lobby, occupying it, according to reports by the NHK television network.

The decision came only after Abe met Nakaima in Tokyo on Wednesday and offered him a package that included increased financial assistance for the island.

The roughly 18,000 marines stationed on Okinawa will drop to about 10,000 as the new base is completed over the next decade.

During that time, facilities are to be built that would shift about 5,000 marines to Guam, and plans are under way to eventually deploy about 2,500 in Australia.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse