BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — The long-running controversy over the construction of upgraded facilities for the U.S. military in Okinawa has taken a new turn after a panel of experts called on Washington and Tokyo to open discussions with the prefectural government and to scrap the present plan.
The panel was commissioned by the prefectural authority and is made up of academics and former government bureaucrats. It presented its proposals to Gov. Danny Tamaki in late March, concluding that the existing proposal to reclaim land off Camp Schwab, in the north-east of the prefecture, is “impractical.”
Reclamation work off Camp Schwab has been suspended as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, but the Japanese government insists that it remains committed to pushing ahead with the original plan to construct new runways and related infrastructure before US Marine units presently at Futenma Air Station are relocated to the base.
That transfer is part of a larger realignment of U.S. forces in the region that will see thousands of Marines relocated to Guam, South Korea and northern Australia, but the entire plan hinges on troops having a new facility on Okinawa to take over when Futenma is handed back to local control.
The project has been planned for more than a decade, but progress has been delayed by legal challenges and the opposition of local residents. Work to reclaim part of the bay off the base began in 2018 but has encountered a number of problems, the most significant of which is the realization that the seabed at the site is “as soft as mayonnaise,” according to the most recent surveys, and that construction work will take far longer and be more costly than previously estimated.
The seven-strong panel is headed by Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former bureaucrat in the Defense Ministry and assistant chief cabinet secretary in charge of crisis management.
The panel’s report says the state of the seabed off the base renders the original plan unworkable and concludes that the U.S. troops presently stationed in Okinawa should be deployed in smaller units to existing US bases in mainland Japan or to other bases in the Asia-Pacific region.
The report also says that its conclusion is partly motivated by advances in China’s military capabilities, with the concentration of US personnel in a relatively small geographical area making them vulnerable to a Chinese attack. The authors of the report suggest that it would make more strategic sense to deploy US units in smaller numbers but in more locations.
The Japanese government has made no direct response to the report but appears set on pushing ahead with its original plans. On April 21, the government submitted plans to alter the design of the enlarged facility at Camp Schwab, although the changes only affect construction methods to overcome the problem of the soft seabed and will not impact the overall plan.
Tokyo was legally obliged to formally request the changes, which were immediately rejected by the prefectural authorities, setting the stage for another round of court hearings. The courts have consistently sided with the national government on the project, citing national security concerns, and are expected to do so again, although the procedures may further delay completion of the work.
The estimated cost of the project has soared from an initial $2.17 billion to $6.69 billion today, while the construction will take another 12 years to complete. Under the agreement between Washington and Tokyo, Futenma Air base was due to be handed back to local control in 2022, but that is now impossible and it will take at least a further decade. mbj