Future of Okinawa base strains U.S.-Japanese alliance

Japanese officials are pressuring the U.S. to close the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa, a base that has been a key Pacific outpost for the U.S. since World War II. The Japanese complain that the sound from the helicopters torments locals who live in the newly-developed area surrounding the base.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 24, 2010

GINOWAN, JAPAN -- The people of Okinawa and the U.S. Marine Corps agree on at least one thing: The Futenma Marine air station is a noisy dinosaur that needs to move elsewhere -- and soon.

Smack in the middle of this densely packed city of 92,000 and taking up about a quarter of its land, the air base torments its neighbors with the howl of combat helicopters and the shudder of C-130 transport planes.

"The noise is unbearable," said Harumi Chinen, principal of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, where about 780 children study in buildings next to the airfield. "A school should be very comforting and safe. That is not the case here."

Where can the Marines and their earsplitting machines go? That question has triggered the most serious quarrel in the history of the traditionally harmonious U.S.-Japanese alliance, which last week marked its 50th anniversary.

The relocation question has exasperated the Obama administration and strained its dealings with a country that the United States is treaty-bound to protect in case of attack. Hanging in the balance is the future of a $26 billion deal between Japan and the United States to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and turn over several valuable tracts of urban land to the people of the island.

Worry, too, has spread across East Asia, as officials from South Korea to Australia have expressed concern about the future of the U.S. security role in the region.

The 14,200 Marines who train with aircraft from Futenma are the only mobile U.S. ground forces based in East Asia, said Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific. "They bring a lot of stability and security that allows the Asia Pacific region to be a relatively peaceful place," he said.

Yet even from a Marine point of view, staying at Futenma is not desirable. Decades of citizen complaints -- and the 2004 crash of a Marine helicopter into a nearby college campus, which miraculously killed no one -- have triggered flight restrictions that degrade the tactical utility of the Futenma base, especially in training Marines for night combat.

"These restrictions reduce the number of aircraft we can put up through a 24-hour day," said Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, Marine commander on this tropical island, which has a strategic perch between Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. "It is not a showstopper, but it is a factor."

Until last year, the Futenma problem had a treaty-guaranteed solution that pleased the Marines, soothed the allies and suited Tokyo: The air station would move to a new seaside home at Camp Schwab, in the thinly populated north of the island.

Democracy scuttled the deal. In August, Japanese voters tossed out the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for nearly 50 years and had agreed in 2006 on the relocation of the Marine base.

The winner of the election had other ideas about the future of the air station and Japan's relationship with the United States. The Democratic Party of Japan and its leader, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, campaigned on the claim that Japan had for too long been too passive in its U.S. dealings. To make the point, Hatoyama froze the base relocation plan, while suggesting that the Marines move their airfield off Okinawa and perhaps out of Japan altogether.

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