Work to start on upgrading US base in Japan despite fierce opposition
Controversial construction of runways at Camp Schwab will begin in autumn - before elections
The Japanese government is bringing forward work on the controversial replacement facility for the troops and aircraft currently stationed at the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, ostensibly to demonstrate its commitment to closing the base within five years.
It has also been pointed out, however, that construction of two new runways and associated infrastructure in the autumn will have started before the elections for governor of the prefecture, where the presence of tens of thousands of US military personnel is always an issue with voters.
Work to dramatically expand the capabilities of Camp Schwab, on the northeast coast of Okinawa, was scheduled to begin early in 2015, but sources cited by the Yomiuri newspaper said that had been advanced to the autumn.
The incumbent governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has demanded that Tokyo shut down Futenma Air Station - which is in the heart of the town of Ginowan - within five years.
There is fierce opposition among local residents to the aircraft and troops being redeployed to the more remote Camp Schwab, while environmental groups are warning that constructing new runways over a coral reef and the feeding grounds of endangered dugongs will cause irreparable harm to local flora and fauna.
Ideally, local residents would like to see the functions of Futenma moved outside the prefecture entirely. The governments of Japan and the US have examined other potential sites, and several thousand of the troops presently stationed at Futenma will be relocated to Guam, but the decision has been taken to retain the bulk of the forces in Okinawa.
Analysts believe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking advantage of his soaring popularity among the electorate to push through a project that was originally agreed in 1996.
"This will be divisive, but Abe is riding high in the polls - if you read some of the papers, it's as high as 71 per cent - and now is the time for him to make progress," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said.
"China is making a lot of commotion over the debate here on collective self-defence and that is helping his support rate," Okumura added, suggesting that the majority of Japanese would be willing to overlook the government ignoring locals' opinions on the base transfer if it helped ensure Japan's national security.
The Okinawa Defence Bureau has requested tenders for four projects. The first is for land reclamation work for the planned runways and the second is a survey of the coral reef that is offshore and will be partially covered if the runways are built.
The third tender is for the provision of equipment to monitor the presence of dugongs, protected sea mammals that local residents and environmentalists claim inhabit the area, while the fourth tender will be for a coastal drilling survey.
Susumu Inamine, who was re-elected mayor of nearby Nago in mid-January and is a fierce opponent of the plan, has criticised the national government's decision to disregard the will of local residents and to push ahead.
He told local reporters that the decision to proceed was "insensitive" and "ignores the election results".
Contractors previously attempted to carry out a drillng survey on the reef and further offshore, but were forced to give up when protesters interfered with their operations. Similar tactics are likely to be employed this time, although the national government will be better prepared.