US base row worsens over Tokyo-Okinawa dispute

US base row worsens over Tokyo-Okinawa dispute

A row over a controversial US military base on the Japanese island chain of Okinawa worsened Tuesday as Tokyo dug in its heels against the local governor's order to halt construction.

The central government insisted work was carrying on as usual at the sparsely populated coastal site chosen as the replacement for the Futenma Air Station, which sits in a crowded urban area, and the defence ministry filed an appeal against the stoppage order. "We do not believe there is any reason to stop the work at this point," said top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga.

"The government will continue the drilling survey as planned, while paying full attention to the environment." Tokyo's hardening stance came after anti-base Governor Takeshi Onaga said Monday that coral just outside the permitted zone at the site on the island's northeast coast had been damaged and demanded a halt to the work. "The order is invalid, significantly and clearly not legal," Suga said.

The government will carry on the construction work, he said, so that "the air station said to be the most dangerous in the world can be closed and the risk be removed" from the heavily residential area.

The brouhaha is the latest development in a nearly two-decade row. Around half of the 47,000 US servicemen stationed in Japan as part of a security treaty are based in Okinawa and the relocation of the base has become emblematic of local feelings that the island chain shoulders too much of the burden of hosting the American military.

The once-independent kingdom of Okinawa was annexed by Japan in the 19th century and was under US control from the end of World War II in 1945 until 1972. While most Japanese value the protection the US alliance gives them, especially in the context of Beijing's growing regional assertiveness, a sizable proportion of Okinawans want a dramatic reduction in their numbers.

The shuttering of Futenma and the opening of a replacement base at Nago, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away, was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to soothe local anger after the gang-rape of a schoolgirl by servicemen.

But it has been bogged down ever since, with local protesters blocking the move, arguing any new base should be built elsewhere in Japan or abroad.

In 2013 Onaga's predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima, formerly a staunch opponent, dropped his objection to the new base after Tokyo promised a hefty annual cash injection to the local economy. Many islanders saw this as a betrayal and in November kicked him out of office in favour of Onaga.

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