In a bid to ease tensions with the southern island, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday that he has agreed to suspend construction of a controversial US military base on Okinawa.
The suspension is as part of the agreement with Okinawa’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, to pursue an out-of-court settlement on three lawsuits challenging the relocation of the current US Marine air station at Futenma, to a remote, relatively unpopulated part of the main island called Henoko, The Washington Post reported.
The settlement requires Tokyo to suspend land reclamation off the Henoko coast in Okinawa Prefecture, needed to build two runways out into the sea.
“I have decided to accept the court’s mediation recommendation and settle with the Okinawa prefectural government,” Mr. Abe told reporters, according to the Post.
Though the government isn’t changing its relocation plans, the prime minister emphasized. The completion of the plan would just be delayed by two years – until 2025.
“There is no change in the central government’s thinking that relocating the base to Henoko is the only alternative” to Futenma, Abe said. “If the current series of lawsuits continues endlessly, we will remain deadlocked and the Futenma base could remain there for years.
For twenty years, Japanese and US officials have failed in attempts to relocate the base, largely opposed by locals who want the base to be closed and moved out of the prefecture, rather than relocated to the Henoko site.
But the islands remains a key strategic location for the US-Japan military alliance, driven by concerns over the growing military power of China. Abe has sought to deepen military ties with the United States and to bolster Japan’s defense in other ways, The New York Times reported.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations,
Okinawa hosts a disproportionate share of the continuing US military presence. About 25 percent of all facilities used by US Forces are in Japan and about half of the US military personnel are located in the prefecture, which comprises less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land area. The US military presence in Japan, and particularly Okinawa, allows it to fulfill its obligations under the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to not only defend Japan but to maintain security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Yet local residents regard the US military on Okinawa a violation of human rights, citing noise, crime, pollution, and accidents connected with the bases.
According to the Okinawan government, from 1972 to 2011 there were 5,747 criminal cases involving US military personnel, including a 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen. The incident “incited outrage and dredged up years of resentment, sparking a nationwide debate about the terms of the US occupation," according to Foreign Affairs.
In a speech at the United Nations last September, Mr. Onaga called on the government to to halt the construction, saying it was violating the rights of local people.
“Our right to self-determination and human rights have been neglected,” he said, according to the Japan Times. “Can a country serve values such as freedom, equality, human rights, and democracy with other nations when that country cannot guarantee those values for its own people?”
As part of the agreement on Friday, Abe and Onaga said that if new talks failed and the matter ultimately ended up in court again, they would accept whatever ruling a judge handed down, The New York Times reported.
Though some analysts have already cast their doubts suggesting that the announcement is unlikely to put the issue completely to bed, one local resident has welcomed the move.
“I welcome the decision to suspend construction, but we don’t know what the result of the negotiations will be,” Hiroshi Ashitomi, a leader of a protest group in the city of Nago, told The Times. “We believe in the governor.”