US airbase's future in doubt after Okinawa vote

US airbase's future in doubt after Okinawa vote
Former Naha mayor Takeshi Onaga (R) hugs his daughter as they celebrate his victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in Naha, the capital of Japan's southern island of Okinawa on November 16, 2014.

While Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and United States President Barack Obama were in Brisbane talking about strengthening their countries' alliance, voters in Okinawa had other ideas.

Yesterday, they voted in a new governor who is opposed to a long-stalled plan to relocate the American airbase in Futenma, Okinawa, to another site in the prefecture, in a move likely to create a new crisis in the Japan-US security alliance.

The new governor is Mr Takeshi Onaga, 64, who resigned as mayor of Naha, Okinawa's largest city, to contest the election.

Reports said his pledge to use all legal means to block the construction of a new base at the coastal Henoko site is likely to affect the relocation plan.

Mr Onaga is seeking to relocate Futenma outside Okinawa, if not outside Japan. Okinawa residents have long called for the reduction of US bases in the prefecture, which is host to three-quarters of all US military facilities in Japan.

Media projections based on exit polls and other data proclaimed Mr Onaga the winner over his nearest rival, outgoing governor Hirokazu Nakaima, soon after voting closed last night.

Mr Nakaima was running for a third term. Both men ran as independents.

Mr Onaga, who was previously secretary-general of the Okinawa chapter of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was backed mostly by opposition parties, while Mr Nakaima was supported by the LDP.

Mr Onaga has promised to revoke the approval for a massive offshore landfill project that is required for the construction of a new base at Henoko.

The project, which was approved by Mr Nakaima late last year, has also angered environmentalists. Japan struck a deal with the US to relocate Futenma back in 1996.

Futenma is located in a densely populated area in Ginowan city, posing a constant danger to residents living under the flight paths of military aircraft landing at or taking off from the base.

The Abe administration has promised to end operations at Futenma in five years.

Japan's security ties with the US took a hit in 2009 when then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama assured Mr Obama that he would find a location for the airbase outside Okinawa prefecture.

Dogged by a finance scandal, however, Mr Hatoyama was forced to step down after barely nine months in office, without resolving the Futenma issue.

In a bid to put Japan's security ties with the US back on an even keel, Mr Abe personally negotiated with Mr Nakaima on Henoko.

Though long opposed to the Futenma relocation plan himself, Mr Nakaima was persuaded to change his mind after Mr Abe promised 300 billion yen (S$3.35 billion) in grants every year for Okinawa until 2021.

It was reported earlier that there are plans to construct a railway line running the length of Okinawa Island and to turn Okinawa into a regional hub for medical tourism.

The prefecture is also said to be likely to get a Singapore-style integrated resort - complete with a casino - that would help boost its tourism industry, when the government succeeds in legalising casinos in Japan.

As Japan's poorest prefecture, Okinawa thrives on tourism.

Yesterday's election attracted considerable attention as it was the first prefecture-wide election after Mr Nakaima gave the green light for the landfill project.

A survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper earlier this month showed that 45 per cent of Oki- nawa residents oppose the relocation of Futenma airbase to Henoko, while 31 per cent support it.

This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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