The governor of Japan's Okinawa prefecture on Friday approved a plan to relocate a controversial U.S. Marine Corps air base to a less populous part of the southern island after decades of tension over the base.
After years of staunch opposition, Okinawa's governor Hirokazu Nakaima, a bitter critic of Japan’s central government, accepted the relocation this week after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged an annual injection of 300 billion yen ($2.9 billion) into the island's economic stimulus budget until fiscal 2021.
Nakaima, however, said he would keep pressing to move the base off the island altogether.
The reluctant nod from Okinawa is an achievement for the country's prime minister, who has promised a more robust military and tighter security ties with the United States amid escalating tension with China.
Nakaima's approval marks a breakthrough on an original 1996 agreement between Japan and the United States to shut the Futenma airbase, which is in a densely populated urban area.
According to the proposed packages, operations at Futenma are to stop within five years.
Sceptics, however, said it remained far from clear whether the relocation would actually take place given persistent opposition from Okinawa's residents, many of whom associate the U.S. base with crime, pollution and noise.
About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa. The new base is part of an agreement that would also move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam.
Nakaima told a news conference he had approved a central government request for a landfill project at the new site, on the Henoko coast near the town of Nago. His approval for that project, required by law and a first step to building the replacement facility, was the last procedural barrier to eventually replacing the U.S. Marines Futenma air base in the crowded town of Ginowan.
"The government has recently met our requests in compiling a plan to reinvigorate Okinawa. We felt that the Abe government's regard for Okinawa is higher than any previous governments'," Nakaima said.
Still, the governor added that the quickest way to relocate the Futenma air base would be to move it to an existing facility with runways outside Okinawa.
About 2,000 people gathered in front of the Okinawa government building to protest against Nakaima's decision, with a few hundred of them staging a sit-in at the lobby of the office building, Jiji news agency said.
The approval came a day after Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, seen in parts of Asia as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, infuriating China and South Korea and prompting concern from the United States about deteriorating ties between the Asian neighbors.
By ending the stalemate over Futenma airbase, the U.S. hopes to strengthen its ties with Japan as China's influence in the region grows.
"The realignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable force posture in the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
“Reaching this milestone is a clear demonstration to the region that the alliance is capable of handling complex, difficult problems in order to deal effectively with 21st century security challenges,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.