SEOUL, South Korea - For nearly two decades, fierce local opposition has stalled a plan to relocate a controversial U.S. Marine base on the island of Okinawa. But on Friday, Japan's hawkish prime minister persuaded Okinawa's governor to sign off on the construction of a replacement facility - a step that was hailed in Washington as a diplomatic breakthrough.
The concession by Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima is a significant achievement for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government spent months lobbying for the move. To win Nakaima's support, Abe offered new spending for infrastructure and development projects on Okinawa and also pledged to help reduce the island's troop-hosting burden.
The struggle to find a replacement site for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma had become a source of friction between Japan and the United States, and in recent years some Obama administration officials had grown pessimistic about resolving the impasse. Abe's ability to do so highlights the power he has consolidated one year into his term, a period in which he has riled neighbors and worked to beef up Japan's defense.
Nakaima signed off Friday morning on plans for landfill work that will allow the Futenma air station to be moved to a less populated area. Tokyo and Washington agreed upon the new site seven years ago.
But even in accepting the deal, Nakaima warned that the relocation will not be easy and said he would still prefer the base to be moved off the island entirely. Some analysts say the relocation could be held up by court challenges. They also caution that aircraft crashes or crimes by U.S. service members could change the political atmosphere, making it harder for Nakaima - or his successors - to implement the deal.
After the approval, roughly 2,000 protesters flocked to the Okinawan prefectural assembly building in Naha, local media reported, holding signs saying, "Leave office, governor" and "We won't allow the landfill."
Still, U.S. officials greeted the agreement as a major step. The relocation of Futenma is a key element of a U.S. realignment of troops and resources in the Asia-Pacific region, where the administration is seeking to augment the U.S. presence to counterbalance China's military rise and anticipate threats from a volatile North Korea.