The United States seems to be signaling it will live with whatever decision Japan finally makes on the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma relocation issue.
But in the absence of any decision, and after years of wrangling on this issue, Washington is now suggesting it might as well stay put at Futenma.
But like all things connected with Futenma, that comes at a price. The U.S. government has submitted a hefty bill for repairs it says must be made to keep the base operational.
Part of the reason for this is a February agreement with Japan to delink the relocation from the transfer of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Not only is Washington asking Japan to shoulder about 25 billion yen ($302 million) in repairs at Futenma, but the repair plan extends over an eight-year period from fiscal 2013.
This suggests the United States has no plans to move from Futenma in the near future.
Japanese officials will seek to reduce not only the amount of the repair costs, but also the period over which the repairs will be made.
The United States raised the possibility of repairs to Futenma in the course of discussions on the realignment of the U.S. military in Japan. Japanese officials asked for specific repair items and the basis for the cost estimates. In response, the United States submitted a detailed list of repairs it envisioned over an eight-year period from fiscal 2013.
Under the plan, initial repair work would cover housing for enlisted personnel and the main gate to Futenma. Repairs to the Futenma runway that are deemed necessary from a safety standpoint are not scheduled until the latter half of the eight-year plan. The fact that the more vital repairs have been scheduled for later in the plan is another sign the United States is thinking of staying at Futenma for the long term.
In February, the two nations agreed to revise the 2006 agreement on the Futenma relocation and go ahead with the transfer of Marines from Okinawa to Guam, even if no progress was made in the Futenma relocation. However, because of strong local resistance to moving Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture, little progress has been made on the relocation. That led to concerns that the delinking of the two issues could lead to keeping Futenma in place permanently.
After the 1996 agreement between Japan and the United States to eventually return Futenma to Japan, Japan has shouldered a total of about 1.6 billion yen in repairs at Futenma.
In fiscal 1998 and 1999, air-conditioning was repaired at housing for military personnel and in fiscal 2007, display lights were installed at the ends of the runway. No major repairs were made at Futenma because Japan was of the standing that the base would soon be returned.
Against that background, a Defense Ministry source said about the latest U.S. request, "If we approved the entire amount, that would be equivalent to approving fixing Futenma at its present location for at least an eight-year period."
Although the initial agreement called for completion of the Futenma relocation by 2014, because that goal is no longer attainable, Japan is prepared to approve the minimum level of repairs needed to allow for continued use of Futenma.
Okinawa prefectural government officials have made it clear that they would never stand for making Futenma a permanent fixture.
For that reason, Japanese government officials will seek to reduce the period of the repair plan as well as the repair amount. A government source said, "We will reduce the amount we have to shoulder by determining whether the repairs are really necessary."
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