Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 5 News List

Okinawa steps in over US base

RELOCATION WRANGLE:Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the suspension order should not delay work on an undersea drilling survey

AP, TOKYO

The governor of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa ordered a Japanese Ministry of Defense branch to suspend all work in the area where a key US military air base is to be relocated, in a growing confrontation between the island and the central government.

Governor Takeshi Onaga said on Monday that a concrete anchor thrown into the sea for a drilling survey at the site is believed have damaged coral.

It was his first specific action to interfere with the relocation since taking office four months ago. His predecessor’s approval of the plan had allowed the defense branch to begin preparing the site in Henoko for the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Onaga told a news conference that the use of concrete blocks had not been authorized. He said the prefecture needs to assess the damage and demanded that the branch stop all activity related to the relocation within one week or lose its license for the drilling work, which could put the entire relocation on hold.

The central government’s effort to gain Okinawa’s understanding of the relocation is “insufficient,” he said.

“I urge the Defense Bureau to take the order seriously and take a responsible step,” he added.

It was not immediately clear if the order would be followed.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that officials are currently studying the suspension order, but that the survey should proceed regardless of it.

He criticized Onaga for altering the concession that Okinawa had made under its previous leader.

“I don’t see any reason why we should halt the operation,” Suga said. “This is a law-abiding nation. It is extremely regrettable that [Onaga] submitted the document [ordering the suspension] at this stage.”

In Washington, US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the US understanding was that construction “will proceed as planned.”

“Construction of the replacement facility is a meaningful result of many years of sustained work between the US and Japan,” she told reporters. “It’s also a critical step toward realizing our shared vision for the realignment of US forces on Okinawa.”

The current Futenma base is in a densely populated part of the island and its relocation is intended to address safety and nuisance concerns. However, many people on Okinawa want Futenma moved completely off the island. Opponents also say the construction would endanger the coral reef, tropical fish and other marine life.

The underwater drilling, which had been halted before the general election November last year, resumed earlier this month to prepare for the land reclamation needed to build an airstrip over the water from Camp Schwab, another US military base.

The Futenma relocation is part of a broader realignment of the US military presence in Okinawa, home to about half of 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security treaty. The relocation plan, agreed upon in 1996, has been repeatedly delayed.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government says the plan is crucial to Japan’s military alliance with the US amid China’s military rise and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

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