Okinawa approves U.S. base move after 17 years of talks

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TOKYO — The governor of Okinawa approved a land reclamation project that will move a U.S. military base out of a crowded city center after 17 years of wrangling, removing a thorn in U.S.-Japan relations.

Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said Friday he agreed to a plan to build a new base partially offshore on a less densely populated part of Okinawa's main island. The move will allow the closing of the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, criticized as dangerous for its proximity to schools and homes, with the land returned to local people.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a statement Friday called the reclamation project decision "a critical part of the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa."

"This plan will reduce our footprint in the most populated part of Okinawa and let us return significant land south of Kadena Air Base while sustaining U.S. military capabilities," he said.

The decision may help cement security ties, an issue that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has highlighted amid rising tensions with China over a territorial dispute. The announcement comes a day after the U.S. expressed disappointment over Abe's visit to a Tokyo war memorial shrine.

The Marine relocation is the biggest of a several U.S. policy moves with Japan, including the transfer of U.S. personnel to Guam from Okinawa starting in about 2015 that's a key element of the U.S. strategic shift toward Asia announced last year.

The focus on Asia has included the nine-month deployment this year to Singapore of the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship and agreements with Japan and South Korea to reposition additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes, such as the Boeing Co. P-8 aircraft, and first Asia sale of the Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk drone.

In 2014, the U.S. plans increased discussions with Australia on the deployment of Marines there and with the Philippines government over a military "framework" agreement.

Nakaima's decision may spark anger in Okinawa, where many people want the base moved out of the prefecture entirely. Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's land area and hosts about half the 38,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in the country. Residents complain of noise, crime, accidents and pollution associated with bases there.

"At this point all possible steps have been taken to preserve the environment and it meets standards, so I approved it," Nakaima said at a briefing in Naha, the capital city. His top priority was to stop operations at Futenma within five years, he said.

A poll published by regional broadcaster Ryukyu Asahi on Dec. 3 found three-quarters of the 1,076 respondents said Futenma, now located in the city of Ginowan, should be moved outside the prefecture or outside the country. About 72 percent said the governor shouldn't approve the land reclamation project to build the new base. The survey was carried out from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 and gave no margin of error.

Abe thanked Nakaima for the decision. "We must do everything we can to lighten the burden borne by the people of Okinawa," he said Friday at his official residence.

In 1995, the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen on Okinawa sparked a public outcry, leading to a U.S.-Japan agreement in 1996 that the Futenma base be closed in five to seven years. Ten years later, the two governments agreed on a plan for the replacement facility at Henoko in the city of Nago and the transfer of thousands of U.S. troops to Guam.

This week, Abe smoothed the way for the base move by pledging to provide at least 300 billion yen ($2.9 billion) to Okinawa annually until 2021.

"The Abe administration has shown more consideration for Okinawa than any previous administration," Nakaima told reporters.

_ With assistance from Tony Capaccio in Washington.