Govt's Futenma plan a hopeless hodgepodge
The government has at last decided on its final plan concerning the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.
However, the plan is fraught with inconsistencies and problems, and has many fluid elements. We harbor grave doubts about whether the government plan will actually get off the ground.
The main pillar of this plan is a twist on the plan that has already been agreed to. Instead of constructing a V-shaped pair of runways on land reclaimed from the sea off the marines' Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture, the government wants to build an alternative runway on a so-called quick installation platform. Some helicopter troops and training exercises would be transferred to Tokunoshima island, Kagoshima Prefecture.
The government will study the possibility of transferring flight training conducted at Futenma Air Station and Kadena Air Base to several other areas in the country. The United States could also be asked to return shooting and bombing ranges on two small islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Base to stay in Okinawa
The plan, for all intents and purposes, will relocate Futenma Air Station's functions within Okinawa Prefecture. However, this has been fiercely opposed by the people of Nago, three towns on Tokunoshima and the Social Democratic Party, a partner in the Democratic Party of Japan-led coalition government.
The Okinawa prefectural government, which initially approved the relocation within the prefecture as agreed to under the existing plan, has changed tack and is demanding the base's functions be shifted outside the prefecture.
The bottom line is that the final plan has cobbled together a mishmash of last-ditch ideas that might lesson the burdens on affected communities, in a bid to appease all the parties involved in the matter.
Although some training exercises that had been conducted at Kadena Air Base have been transferred elsewhere, the number of flights has reportedly remained unchanged. Furthermore, there is little likelihood that the United States will return the shooting and bombing ranges to Japan anytime soon.
The absence of a "control tower" overseeing the relocation has resulted in the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama dealing with all the parties involved in an exceedingly ad hoc manner. The government has ended up trumpeting please-all patchy ideas and facing opposition from all sides. Its handling of the issue has been extremely inept.
The whole point of the relocation was to reduce the burden shouldered by Okinawa Prefecture in hosting U.S. forces, while maintaining their deterrent. If the Hatoyama administration is sincere in achieving this objective, it should not reject the option of admitting it has strayed off course and returning to the original plan.
Deadline must be met
Several Cabinet members recently suggested a conclusion to the issue should be "put off" until after May 31, a self-imposed deadline by Hatoyama that he called a "promise made to the people." However, this would be tantamount to shifting the goal during a soccer match and would be unlikely to sit well with the public.
Hatoyama holds supreme responsibility for settling this issue. Even with only half a month left before the end of May, the prime minister has insisted almost daily that he would find a solution acceptable to Okinawa, the United States and the ruling coalition parties.
If Hatoyama fails to achieve this, criticism of the inconsistencies in his deeds and words will only grow shriller. Hatoyama's political responsibility as prime minister is grave.
Needless to say, the Futenma relocation is not the be-all and end-all of Japan-U.S. ties. However, any delay in settling this issue could have an immense impact on other aspects of the bilateral relationship.
Particularly disconcerting is the fact that there is no sign all parties with a stake in the matter will agree to the final plan.
In that case, the risk of accidents and the noise problems that the Futenma base poses to densely populated neighboring areas will remain, while the historic burden-lessening transfer of 8,000 U.S. marines to Guam could be stalled.
Once again, it will be Hatoyama who is to blame if that happens.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 13, 2010)