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Northern Okinawan City Agrees to Plan for US Marine Corps Heliport

A major obstacle to a sweeping realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan seems to be in the process of being resolved. An agreement has been reached between the Japanese Government and a city in northern Okinawa to allow the relocation of a controversial U.S. Marine Corps air station.

Japan's central government and the Okinawan city of Nago have struck a deal to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma heliport from the congested city of Ginowan to a remote facility on the northern tip of the island.

The agreement, signed late Friday, resolves a dispute between the city and the central government that has stood in the way of completion of a broad realignment plan for U.S. forces in Japan. That plan was supposed to have been completed by March 31.

An earlier plan to build the heliport on an offshore reef was stalled for a decade - in part because protesters disrupted construction.

Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro says the new location at Cape Henoko, at the Marines' existing Camp Schwab, will be less disruptive to his city's residents.

The Nago mayor says he is happy that his counter-proposal was accepted by the Japanese government, and he will explain it to his constituents in hopes of gaining their understanding.

The agreement calls for two runways to be built, one for takeoffs and the other for landings. The new design would lessen air traffic over populated areas - the major concern that had held up the overall realignment agreement.

The Japanese Defense Agency's secretary-general, Fukushiro Nukaga, met Saturday with Okinawa governor Keiichi Inamine to ask for his understanding. Inamine has called for the heliport to be built either offshore or out of Okinawa.

A joint news conference had been planned to announce an agreement between Okinawa and the central government, but Inamine emerged from the two-and-a-half-hour meeting to speak to reporters by himself.

The Okinawa governor says that while he respects the decision by the mayor of Nago, he is still opposed to the agreement, but is willing to continue meeting with officials from Tokyo.

The governor has the power to block the relocation plan because the prefectural government has authority over the use of the ocean where the heliport would be located.

However, Nukaga appeared upbeat after Saturday's meeting, saying negotiations are in the final stretch.

The defense agency boss says he understands that the governor is trying to look out for the overall interests of Okinawa.

The tentative runway agreement came two days after Japan-U.S. talks in Washington on the overall realignment plan ended without agreement. The remaining major dispute is over how to divide the cost of relocating eight thousand Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific island of Guam.

Sources involved in the negotiations say Washington wants Tokyo to bear 75 percent of the Guam relocation costs, which could total $10 billion. The Japanese have balked at paying that amount, and have offered instead to loan the U.S. $3 billion towards the cost of off-base housing on Guam.

Another round of meetings between U.S. and Japanese officials is scheduled to begin here Thursday.

 


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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