U.S. and Japan Agree on Returning Okinawa Land

New York Times


TOKYO — The United States and Japan agreed Friday on a new timetable for the return to Japan of a Marine airfield and other military bases on Okinawa, moving to solve a long-festering issue that has bedeviled America’s ties with its largest Asian ally.

By agreeing to a clear timetable for the return of 2,500 acres, both nations are hoping to entice Okinawans to drop their opposition to the air base, which Washington and Tokyo want to move to another part of the island but which many Okinawans want to move off the island. Fierce local opposition has kept Japan from being able to follow through on a deal originally made in 1996 to allow the base and its noisy aircraft to be relocated to a less populated area of the island.

Japan’s hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to revive the long-stalled deal at a time of increasing tensions with China that have led many Japanese to support strengthening the alliance with the United States, Japan’s longtime protector. The deal on Friday could help Mr. Abe politically, by making clear what Okinawans stand to gain by agreeing to keep the base.

It could also help the Obama administration if it finally leads to the end of an impasse that has left the future of the important air base in limbo, and that has undermined the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.

Announcing the new agreement in a room filled with American and Japanese flags, Mr. Abe called it a significant step toward reducing the huge American military presence on Okinawa, a legacy of the United States’ occupation of that tropical island after World War II. The base relocation is the centerpiece of a broader deal to eventually move some 9,000 Marines to bases in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

“We are able to make progress in reducing Okinawa’s burden in a visible manner,” Mr. Abe said, joined by a dozen American and Japanese officials. “I am extremely glad that everybody could sit down together today and reach a conclusion on this intractable issue.”

Friday’s agreement tries to restart that plan by setting a target date of returning the Futenma base, in the center of the city of Ginowan, by as early as 2022, provided the replacement air base is operational. It also lays out a timetable for handing over five other American bases also in the crowded southern half of the island by the late 2020s.

Under the timetable, the first parcel — an access road and surrounding land totaling 2.5 acres — would be turned over to Japan this year.

In a bid to increase transparency and accountability, the new timetable also includes flowcharts outlining which government agencies in both countries need to take what steps for the land to be returned on schedule. American and Japanese officials said this was to prevent the deal from getting bogged down in murky bureaucratic proceedings, as happened in the past.

For the Obama administration, the agreement is meant not only to shore up one of America’s most important security relationships in Asia, but also to demonstrate to other regional allies, as well as rivals, that the United States has the willpower to maintain its security presence despite its budget difficulties and fatigue from wars in the Middle East.

“This sends a clear signal to the region that we are committed to making hard choices to keep our force posture in Okinawa,” said Mark Lippert, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, who visited Tokyo to complete the agreement.

For Mr. Abe, restarting the relocation plan would fulfill a campaign pledge to improve ties with the United States as his nation faces a growing challenge from China over disputed islands near Okinawa. Becoming a fuller military partner of the United States has been a centerpiece of the prime minister’s bid to reverse his nation’s declining stature in the region after years of economic stagnation and its relative eclipse by China’s rise.

However, he is also taking a political risk on an agreement that may fail to appease Okinawans’ anger over what they see as an unfairly onerous American base presence.

The Abe government has been trying to whittle away at Okinawans’ opposition with offers of generous financial aid and other efforts to court the island’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, a base opponent who is a member of Mr. Abe’s conservative governing party. In a sign the government’s tactics may be working, Mr. Nakaima offered uncharacteristic words of praise Friday, though he warned that the central government still had to win over other local leaders.

“I think it is extremely good that the government is buckling down to deal in concrete terms with the return of bases,” Mr. Nakaima told reporters in Naha, the Okinawan capital. “But it is hard to evaluate the plan until I have had a chance to consult with mayors of the affected communities.”

One sticking point might be the timetable for moving the base, which is now pushed back another nine years. Under an earlier version of the deal in 2006, it would have been relocated next year. The original agreement to move the base was reached in 1996 after the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by American servicemen.