Efforts to relocate a Marine air base that has been a longstanding irritant in ties between Japan and the United States suffered a new setback on Sunday when voters in a small Okinawan city re-elected a leftist mayor who promised to block construction of a replacement site.
The victory for the mayor of Nago, Susumu Inamine, dealt an embarrassing blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has invested his political capital in efforts to restart the long-stalled relocation deal, and who seemed to achieve a breakthrough last month by gaining the support of Okinawa’s governor.
Mr. Abe, a conservative, has vowed to build closer ties with the United States at a time when both nations face growing challenges from a militarily resurgent China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.
A long-simmering dispute between the United States and Japan over the fate of a Marine base on Okinawa seemed to have been resolved on Friday when the governor of Okinawa gave his approval to move the base to a remote area.
The agreement would bolster efforts by the Pentagon to rebalance American military forces across the Asia-Pacific region and by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to raise his country’s strategic posture and check the growing military influence of China.
An official document approving a landfill on which much of the base would be built was stamped by the governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, and sent to the local branch of the Ministry of Defense, Kanako Shimada, a prefectural official, said on Friday.
Mr. Nakaima’s approval was a breakthrough after what had been longstanding opposition on Okinawa to the plan to move the Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma, on the prefecture’s main island to the north of the island.
Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima has left Japan for Washington to attend a symposium on military base issues.
During his 5-day visit, he plans to directly lodge a protest with the US Defense Department over the alleged rape of a woman by 2 US sailors.
The symposium was organized by Okinawa Prefecture. It will be attended by security experts from the 2 countries. The agenda items include the security situation in Okinawa and the relocation of the US Marine Corps’ Futenma air station.
Nakaima plans to explain that the people of Okinawa are demanding the withdrawal of the plan to deploy the controversial Osprey transport aircraft at the Futenma air station.
He also plans to explain that Okinawa is demanding the relocation of the base outside the prefecture and the return of the site.
Nakaima plans to visit the Defense Department and the State Department to directly lodge a protest over the alleged rape of a woman by 2 US soldiers.
Nakaima spoke to reporters before his departure from Narita Airport on Sunday. He said he wants to hear the US experts’ view on Okinawa and exchange opinions with them. He added that he intends to explain the situation in Okinawa, including the deployment of the Osprey and the rape incident.
Two U.S. servicemen were arrested in Japan’s southern island of Okinawa on suspicion of raping a Japanese woman, police said on Wednesday, in an incident that could strain Tokyo’s ties with its closest ally Washington.
The case comes at a time when public opinion in Okinawa is at odds with Tokyo for allowing the U.S. deployment of Osprey hybrid aircraft on the island despite lingering concerns about their safety.
The arrests also coincide with a sharp deterioration in Japan’s relations with China over a disputed East China Sea island chain that makes it strategically important for Tokyo to reaffirm its alliance with the United States.
U.S. ambassador to Japan John Roos said in a statement that his government was extremely concerned by the incident and was committed to cooperating fully with the Japanese authorities in their investigation.
Japan’s new Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed Wednesday that the current plan for the relocation of a U.S. Marine base within Okinawa Prefecture is the only feasible solution, Defense Ministry officials said.
Morimoto, in his first telephone talks with Panetta since assuming office on June 4, was referring to the plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from a crowded residential area in the city of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko district of Nago.
The relocation issue has long been stalled, putting the central and local governments at odds. The government has been pushing for the plan as agreed with the United States.
President Barack Obama met Monday with Japans sixth prime minister in five years to try to strengthen ties with the Pacific economic power still struggling after last years earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear power plant meltdown.
The president and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda started bilateral talks at the White House, to be followed by a working lunch and then a joint news conference.
Japans volatile domestic politics, amid economic sluggishness and the March 2011 tsunami-triggered nuclear crisis, have made continuity a challenge in relations between the World War II enemies turned industrial allies.
The United States and Japan announced on Thursday a revised agreement on streamlining the U.S. military presence on Okinawa that will shift 9,000 Marines from the southern Japanese island to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.The new plan, unveiled days before Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda meets President Barack Obama in Washington, helps the allies work around the central but still-unresolved dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site that has vexed relations for years.”I am very pleased that, after many years, we have reached this important agreement and plan of action. I applaud the hard work and effort that went into crafting it,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement.
Japan and the United States agreed Wednesday to proceed with plans to transfer thousands of U.S. troops out of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, leaving behind the stalled discussion about closing a major U.S. Marine base there.
The transfer, a key to U.S. troop restructuring in the Pacific, has been in limbo for years because it was linked to the closure and replacement of the strategically important base that Okinawans fiercely oppose.
The announcement Wednesday follows high-level talks to rework a 2006 agreement for 8,000 Marines to transfer to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014 if a replacement for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma could be built elsewhere on Okinawa.
Japan and the United States are discussing the transfer of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture out of the country ahead of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, government sources said.
The move comes as part of a review of a 2006 bilateral agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in the country. Under the accord, the transfer of the Marines to Guam and the relocation of the Futenma station were supposed to be handled together.
Senior officials of the foreign and defense ministries of the two countries will meet in Washington on Monday to start full-fledged negotiations on a new realignment plan, according to the sources.
Japan is stepping up efforts ahead of new U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit next week to break a stalemate over the relocation of a Marine base that has stalled the restructuring of U.S. military forces in Asia.
Moving the base is an essential step in Washington’s big-picture plan to reposition about 8,000 Marines from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to the tiny U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, which is set to become a crucial regional hub for the U.S. Marines, Air Force and Navy.
Senior Japanese leaders have held repeated meetings in recent weeks with top politicians on Okinawa to seek their cooperation in moving the base — Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — to a less-crowded area of the island.