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Editorial: Base relocation without local support destabilizes Japan-U.S. alliance

The Japanese government has begun offshore construction of a new U.S. base facility in the Henoko district of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago for the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the city of Ginowan. The Okinawa Prefectural Government, which has declared it will try to stop the relocation plan through "every means possible," is opposing the state's move.

The central government's decision to go ahead with the construction would only deepen the division between the state and Okinawa, and it will not lead to the resolution of U.S. base-related issues in the island prefecture.

The Okinawa government may move to take countermeasures such as withdrawing its approval over the landfill work, which the prefectural government can do when there are changes in the state of the work since the approval was given. The central government is reportedly considering legal action against Okinawa if the prefectural government revokes its approval. The battle between the state and Okinawa then could evolve into a hopeless mess in court, again.

The national government may wish to insist that it has taken the necessary legal steps as an administrative body to advance the landfill work and base relocation plan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed the legitimacy of the launch of the construction during a recent news conference, saying, "Our country is governed under the rule of law. We follow the Supreme Court ruling and the intent of the settlement (between the central government and Okinawa) to move forward with the landfill work while the state and the prefectural government work in cooperation to sincerely address the matter."

There are probably no flaws in legal procedures on the national government's side. The Supreme Court in December last year ruled that the Okinawa Prefectural Government's revocation of its approval for the landfill work was "unlawful." In response to the ruling, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga retracted the revocation, restoring the effectiveness of the approval given by his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima. The central government subsequently resumed land reclamation work for the first time in about 10 months and has just begun the offshore construction of the main facility.

The base relocation issue in essence, however, is not about law or whether administrative procedures are appropriate.

The most recent clash over the Futenma-Henoko relocation plan started after the former governor overturned his campaign promise to move the base outside Okinawa and gave the green light to the landfill work, to which the Okinawan people opposed and showed their resistance in a series of local and national elections where anti-relocation candidates secured victories.

What is called into question here is political wisdom in solving the conflict between the central government, which is pushing for the relocation plan claiming that it is necessary for national security, and the Okinawan people who are opposing the plan in light of the history of Okinawa and local autonomy.

If the replacement facility is built in Henoko, Osprey aircraft will move there, too. The Japanese and U.S. governments have repeatedly stressed that the base relocation to Henoko is the only solution to remove base-related risks in the densely populated Futenma area and to maintain the deterrent of U.S. forces stationed in Japan. This understanding was reaffirmed between the two nations during a recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to Tokyo.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to soon meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. The launch of the main facility construction off Henoko, which came right before Abe's planned visit to the U.S., seems like it's Japan's gift to Trump.

For the residents of Okinawa, however, the base relocation to Henoko from Futenma appears as if the government is just passing around risks imposed on Okinawa for hosting military bases inside the prefecture. Without the Okinawan people's support, it would be difficult to maintain a stable Japan-U.S. security alliance even if the replacement facility was built.

Tokyo and Washington should take the launch of the Trump administration as a chance to make a fresh start and negotiate relocation options other than Henoko without falling into a rigid manner of thinking.

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