By Hiroshi Meguro, journalist
The population of Okinawa Prefecture expressed their opposition to the planned relocation of the U.S. military’s Futenma airfield to the Henoko district of Nago City in the prefectural referendum in February. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maintains the policy of promoting the relocation, leaving a rift between the central and prefectural governments only to grow.
Against the backdrop of the central government’s obsession with relocation to Henoko and pushing ahead with the construction against the sentiment of Okinawa’s people, there is the fact that its consultations over the relocation issue went astray in the past.
Since the end of the 1990s, senior Nago City officials and local builders had requested the joint military-civilian use of a Henoko facility, the setting of a time limit for the U.S. military’s use of the facility, and the expansion of land reclamation. Eventually, negotiations between the central government and the local community reached a cul-de-sac.
With Abe’s rebooted cabinet coming into office, the central government won approval for the land reclamation work at Henoko from then-Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima in exchange for a massive budget for Okinawan development. That infuriated Okinawans and anti-relocation candidate Takeshi Onaga became the next governor. But the central government did not talk with the prefectural government or Nago City on the pretext of the Supreme Court ruling affirming the legitimacy of his predecessor’s approval for the landfill work. Then it started pushing forward the Henoko relocation work.
The rejection of Okinawans’ opinion and the Abe government’s forced implementation of the Henoko relocation have created an image among the people of Okinawa that the government is “taking a high-handed attitude” toward the prefecture. On the other hand, then-Governor Onaga adopted a strategy of making a public appeal stressing the unjustness of the Henoko relocation.
Onaga’s brave confrontation with the central government resonated not only with Okinawans but also with people in Japan’s mainland prefectures. But he could not thwart the central government’s assertion that “if there is no other viable alternative but Henoko, the Futenma base will remain where it is.”
But there is a growing backlash against the Abe government, which has taken a hard-line stance, while the landfill work continues in Henoko. Soft seabed was discovered on the deep ocean floor in the northern part of the coast and it required the government to change its plan.
The situation may provide a great opportunity for incumbent Governor Denny Tamaki because it gives him extra time to consider plan B.
One of the examples of plan B is as follows:
(Step 1) Building a temporary facility for the U.S. military’s Osprey transport aircraft and helicopters on the premises of existing U.S. military bases.
(Step 2) Transferring the Marine Corps’ Futenma-based airborne troops for the early return of Futenma.
(Step 3) Simultaneously halting the construction in the north of Henoko and holding discussions between the central and prefectural governments about a permanent site for relocating the air unit.
Transferring the Marine Corps’ Okinawa-based airborne unit is a major security issue directly linked to the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan, the future concept of the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the East Asia situation. The central government is supposed to seek alternative plans for Henoko base relocation because this is something beyond the responsibility of the prefectural government. But the central government has no intention of considering a new option. The U.S. government also approves of the present plan. As such, Okinawa has no choice but to take the initiative.
The Okinawa prefectural government had the “Regional Security Policy Division” until fiscal 2015. The division analyzed the security situation in East Asia and exchanged views with top-level experts. Tamaki should reorganize the team to quickly suggest an alternative plan to Henoko. I believe if he continues to make efforts to obtain the wisdom and cooperation of Japanese and American experts based on thorough research, he can find a way out of the current situation.
More and more American experts are concerned that anti-base sentiment may intensify in Okinawa. Also, endless conflict with Okinawa is not desirable for the Japanese government. I think the time has come for the central government to exchange ideas with the prefectural government and find common ground.