US base move in Japan set for breakthrough

OKINAWA BASE. An U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft is seen on the tarmac after landing at the U.S. Air Force Kadena Air Base in Kadena city, Okinawa Island, southern Japan, 12 February 2013. EPA/Hitoshi Maeshiro

OKINAWA BASE. An U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft is seen on the tarmac after landing at the U.S. Air Force Kadena Air Base in Kadena city, Okinawa Island, southern Japan, 12 February 2013.

EPA/Hitoshi Maeshiro

TOKYO, Japan – The long-stalled move of a US military base in Okinawa looked set to get over a huge hurdle with a meeting Wednesday, December 25, between the island's pugnacious governor and Japan's prime minister.

Premier Shinzo Abe is to pledge an unheralded cash bonanza for the archipelago, in the form of stimulus spending that commentators say could help persuade governor Hirokazu Nakaima to drop his longstanding opposition to the construction of a new airbase.

His green light would mark a major breakthrough in Japan-US efforts to follow through on an original 1996 agreement to shutter the Futenma airbase, which sits in a densely-populated urban area.

The United States agreed in 2006 to re-site the base on the coast, but the move has been stymied by opposition throughout Okinawa, which feels overburdened by its outsize share of the American military presence in Japan.

Abe is expected to tell Nakaima he will set aside at least 300 billion yen ($2.9 billion) for Okinawa's economic stimulus budget every year until fiscal 2021.

"Reducing the burden (of the US military presence) on Okinawa is one of the most significant challenges for the government, while it is extremely important for the US-Japan alliance," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Suga said Abe will inform the governor of his government's decision following "several requests" from Nakaima, who effectively holds the power of veto on any plan to build a new airbase.

Kyodo News reported the local politician looked set to give the plan his blessing, with a formal decision expected on Friday, December 27.

Campaigners object that the planned site, in Nago, is home to a rare sea mammal called the dugong and the landfilling required would badly affect the creature's habitat.

Tokyo and Washington are expected to agree on an environmental stewardship framework in an effort to assuage fears over the impact of the move.

With around half of the 47,000 US service personnel in Japan based in Okinawa, the strategically-situated island chain continues to be a vital cog in the security alliance between Washington and Tokyo, despite local hostility to the military presence. – Rappler.com