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Defying Toyko, Okinawa suspends US military base construction (+video)

The relocation of a US Marine Corps base on the island is aimed at removing a longstanding irritant in US-Japan relations. Tokyo backs the relocation plan, but the view in Okinawa is less positive. 

A clash between Japan's central government and Okinawa island, host to the bulk of U.S. troops in Japan, deepened on Monday when the southern island's governor ordered a halt to underwater work at the site of a planned relocation of a U.S. Marine base.

The governor of Okinawa has ordered a halt to construction of a controversial new United States military base on the southern Japanese island, the latest setback in a long-running row over the US military presence there. 

Gov. Takeshi Onaga demanded that Japan's government suspend all work at the site after local officials discovered that concrete blocks – used in underwater drilling surveys – had damaged coral reefs.

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At a press conference on Monday, Gov. Onaga said that the Japanese Defense Bureau, the branch of the Defense Ministry that's overseeing the project, had one week to stop all construction activity. He threatened to revoke the bureau’s license for ongoing drilling work if it failed to comply.  

The Guardian reports that Onaga's ultimatum raises the possibility of a protracted legal battle over construction of the base, which US defense officials say is an essential plank of President Obama’s so-called pivot toward Asia.

The new base is intended to replace the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in a crowded urban area. The relocation site, known as Henoko, is located off the island’s secluded northeastern coast, and its construction expected to cost at least $8.6 billion.

The relocation to Henoko is part of a broader reorganization of the US military presence in Okinawa, home to about half of 50,000 American troops. But the plan, agreed upon in 1996, has faced years of delays. As The Associated Press reports:

The Futenma base now is in a densely populated part of the island, and the transfer is intended to address safety and nuisance concerns of the population. But many people on Okinawa want Futenma moved completely off the island. Opponents also say the construction would endanger the coral reef, tropical fish and other marine life.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly stated his support for the plan. His government considers it a key component to Japan's military alliance with the US amid China's growing military assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The AP reports that it was not immediately clear whether the Defense Ministry would observe the suspension order. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that officials were reviewing it, but that the survey should proceed regardless.

"I don't see any reason why we should halt the operation," Mr. Suga said. "This is a law-abiding nation. It is extremely regrettable that [Onaga] submitted the document [ordering the suspension] at this stage."

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In his campaign for governor last year, Onaga vowed to block construction of the base. He was elected in November, defeating the incumbent who had approved the plan in exchange for “a hefty cash injection to the local economy,” Agence France-Presse reports. Many of the island’s residents saw this as a betrayal, AFP reports, contributing to his defeat at the polls.

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