Friday, June 24, 2011

Mage Island site for US carrier-borne aircraft landing drills, another tinderbox for Japan...

Mage Island site for US carrier-borne aircraft landing drills, another tinderbox for Japan...
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - Across the globe, bureaucrats tend to make up fascinating armchair plans. But without regard to local input, that's just a castle in the air - however ingeniously conceived. Without regard for the environment or consideration of local people, no mere desk plan will do.

A very good example is the long-standing controversial relocation issue of the United States Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) at Futenma in Okinawa prefecture in Japan's south.

But now, foreign and defense policymakers of the US and Japan are about to repeat the same failure, as they have caused another friction with local governments over a small island of western Japan called Mage Island.

Although it's hard to spot in news headlines, the US and Japan on June 21 for the first time named Mage Island - or an uninhabited island in Nishinoomote City of Kagoshima prefecture - as the candidate site for US carrier-borne aircraft landing drills.

The joint statement, issued by four foreign and defense ministers of the US and Japan after the so-called two-plus-two security meeting in Washington, for the first time specifically mentioned the name of Mage Island for the "use by US forces as a permanent field carrier landing practice site".

Yet another Futenma?
"Mage Island could be yet another Futenma," Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online. "The government, led by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, has made no serious efforts to convince local people of the plan. They ignored democratic process."

Mage Island covers about 800 hectares and is located around 12 kilometers west of Tanegashima between Kyushu and Okinawa. It was picked as the permanent site for the so-called Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) of the US Navy's Carrier Air Wing 5 (CVW-5) based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi of Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, or the largest US Naval Air Facility in the Pacific. Most of the island is privately owned by a land developer headquartered in Tokyo. Permission from this company is required to land on the island as a general rule.

Under the 2006 bilateral road map agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan, CVW-5 squadrons, together with their 59 US carrier-borne jet fighters such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, are set to be transferred from the Atsugi naval base to the MCAS Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture.

The two nations plan to replace Iwo Island, under the jurisdiction of Tokyo, where the FCLP by CVW-5 is provisionally conducted, with Mage Island. The 2006 bilateral realignment road map said that a permanent location would be picked by 2009 - a delay that Japanese officials can catch a lot of heat for, as they face strong pressure from the US.

Mage Island is only about 400 kilometers from MCAS Iwakuni, while Iwo Island is around 1,200 kilometers away from the Atsugi naval base, thus making flight drills on Mage Island more convenient for the US Navy.

Local opposition
Just as Okinawans have opposed the relocation of the Futenma base to a new helicopter base scheduled for construction off the shores of the beautiful Henoko bay, local officials and residents in Nishinoomote City are beginning to protest the plan to transfer the drills to Mage Island in earnest.

Chikara Nagano, mayor of Nishinoomote City, has said, "We harbor strong resentment against the government's high-handed tactics ignoring local communities' will, and we will never permit it."

Kagoshima governor Yuichiro Ito also voiced his opposition, by saying "it's needed to protest against the plan, together with local people".

Eleven groups such as civic, tourist and medical associations in Nishinoomote City on June 22 jointly issued a letter of protest, under which they pledged to remain adamantly against the plan.

Under the plan, the Japanese Ministry of Defense plans to build a Self-Defense Forces (SDF) facility on Mage Island and conduct the landing practice as part of its efforts to boost security around the Nansei Islands in Okinawa prefecture, and in the East China Sea near China and Taiwan, a move that is apparently aimed at countering China's growing naval power.

In the meantime, the US also plans to conduct the field carrier landing practice there.

Talk of Mage Island as a candidate site for the envisaged flight drill facility arose in 2007 under the administration of the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner the New Komeito party.
But it disappeared soon due to strong local opposition from the Nishinoomote and nearby municipalities. Then, in December 2009 under the former Yukio Hatoyama administration, the island was even considered as a candidate for the Futenma transfer. But again this idea was scrapped because of strong local protest.

Japanese military analyst Shikata said it is militarily nonsense to build the drill site on an uninhabited island such as Mage Island.

"Small islands are vulnerable to external attacks," Shikata said. "Terrorists can easily attack them. Moreover, the US needs the SDF troops for their own safety, just as the US forces in Okinawa are protected by the SDF troops there. You cannot easily build the drill site for the US in such an uninhabited island without SDF personnel."