TOKYO - The governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead Friday for land reclamation to begin for a new U.S. military base, advancing the effort to consolidate the massive American troop presence on the southern Japanese island but also making protests from residents likely.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed the decision, calling it "the most significant milestone" so far in the long-running effort to realign U.S. forces in Okinawa.
Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the Japanese Defense Ministry's application to reclaim land for the base on Okinawa's coast to replace the U.S. Marine Corps base in Futenma, a more congested part of Okinawa's main island.
But he later told a news conference that he would continue pressing to move the Futenma troops off Okinawa entirely, noting estimates that it would take 9 1/2 years to build the base.
"My thinking remains it would be fastest to relocate outside (Okinawa) prefecture to a place where there is already an airport," he said.
Hagel said the effort to realign American troops in Okinawa was "absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region.
"Moving forward with this plan will reduce our footprint in the most populated part of Okinawa ... while sustaining U.S. military capabilities vital to the peace and security of the region," Hagel said in a statement.
The debate over the future of Futenma dates to 1996, when the U.S and Japan signed an agreement to close the base and move its operations elsewhere in Okinawa. In 2006, the two countries agreed to relocate the base to a relatively unpopulated area called Henoko in Nago city. But after the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009, it raised the possibility that the base could be moved off of Okinawa. While it later agreed to the Henoko plan, the proposal energized a movement to move the base elsewhere.
About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa, and many residents complain about base-related crime, noise and the risk of accidents. Some feel the island is bearing an unfair share of the burden of protecting Japan from attack.
A key factor could be the outcome of a mayoral election in Nago next month that pits an opponent of the Henoko plan against a supporter.
"The governor is taking a risk putting the prestige of his office behind the project," said Jun Okumura, a political analyst and former national government official. "I still don't see the project going forward without the consent of the Nago mayor, but I see that this improves the chances of success."
The rise of China's military is reinforcing in the minds of some Japanese the need to have a strong defense, though it's unclear whether it's enough to sway public opinion in Okinawa.
"The government of Japan is poised to take whatever measures are necessary to maintain a strong deterrent while reducing the burden on the people of Okinawa," said the government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Suga expressed his gratitude to Nakaima for what he called a "bold step."
Nakaima's decision could face court challenges and protests.
"What the governor has done is unforgivable," said Yuichi Higa, the head of the Nago assembly. "Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads to stop this from happening."
Hiroshi Ashitomi, head of an opposition group in Nago, said his group would file a lawsuit seeking to cancel the governor's approval of the land reclamation.
The decision was a politically difficult one, and came only after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Nakaima in Tokyo on Wednesday and offered him a package that included pledges of increased financial assistance for Okinawa.
While the base consolidation plan is designed to reduce the impact of the U.S. military on Okinawa, opponents want the Futenma base moved off Okinawa completely. The new base is part of an agreement that would also move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam.