The United States has sounded out Japan on modifying the existing plan on relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa by moving an airfield further offshore than the current accord specifies, sources close to bilateral ties said.
Washington is also considering returning to Japan the bombing ranges on the islands of Kumejima and Torishima, as well as part of a water area east of Okinawa, which are all used by the U.S. military, if Tokyo agrees to implement the 2006 Futenma relocation plan or the suggested modification, the sources said.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima had previously requested that the government consider moving the proposed airfield further offshore, citing noise and other environmental concerns. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated during his visit to Tokyo last October that he would accept such a modification.
The current plan, set under a 2006 bilateral accord, would involve moving Futenma from the crowded city of Ginowan to a new airfield to be built in a coastal area of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab in Nago, also in the prefecture.
The modification proposal comes as the two countries have hit an impasse over where the base should be relocated, with Tokyo exploring alternatives to the current plan.
But the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama intends to negotiate with the U.S. government over a proposal to make Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture the relocation site for the helicopter unit now stationed at Futenma.
Nakaima has also stopped calling for merely modifying the current plan and has joined the mounting calls within the prefecture for moving Futenma outside of Okinawa.
It therefore appears difficult for the two countries to find common ground now that the U.S. has effectively rejected the Tokunoshima option, as well as another option to relocate the base to an area off eastern Okinawa by building an artificial island in the sea.
Hatoyama is still vowing to resolve the matter by the end of next month.
During a meeting with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on April 9, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos said the 2006 plan should still form the basis for Futenma’s relocation, but asked the government to consider whether it would be able to accept a modification to it, the sources said.
Okada avoided giving a clear-cut answer at that time, according to the sources.
In the meeting, Roos did not cite a concrete figure for how far offshore the airfield could be moved, but according to the Defense Ministry, no new environmental assessment will be necessary as long as the modification involves moving the base offshore by slightly more than 50 meters.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government has long called for the return of the bombing ranges and the partial return of the water area to Japan. But Washington has yet to approach Tokyo on their possible return because it intends to propose the move only if Japan agrees to proceed with the current plan or a modified version, the sources said.