October 29, 2012

Report: U.S. should allow Japan to use military air base for commercial use

TOKYO — This megacity of 35 million says it badly needs a third airport to help it meet rising demand for passenger flights. And its officials think just the right airport already exists: a U.S. air base in the sprawling western suburbs, under the shadows of Mount Fuji.

So far, despite almost a decade of lobbying from Tokyo and the central government, Japan hasn’t persuaded the United States to grant it partial use of Yokota Air Base. Talks stalled after a 2007 feasibility study raised the possibility of emergency-time chaos if the base was handling both military jets and commercial planes.


But Tokyo’s case for sharing Yokota received an unlikely push with the release last week of a report from the Center for a New American Security, a moderate D.C.-based think tank that recommended that the United States reconsider the issue as it boosts its military presence in Asia.

The Pentagon, though, has not indicated it will do so. Cathy Wilkinson, the Pentagon’s spokeswoman for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said the Defense Department’s conclusions from 2007 still stand.

The think tank’s report, which comes after a year-long study, says dual use at Yokota could potentially help the United States make its military in Japan more nimble, more popular with locals and harder to attack. Washington could prove its willingness to cooperate with Japan, diluting the bitterness that dominates base issues on the southern island of Okinawa.

The United States could also bargain with Japan for a “quid pro quo” deal, the report said, gaining military access to Japanese civilian airports during emergency situations. The report theorized that such access could come in handy as the United States increasingly focuses on potential threats posed by China and other Asian powers.

“Although . . . securing the ability to operate out of additional airports in Japan would only be a small part of a potential U.S. response to counter [China], they would help mitigate the threat,” the report said.

In the event of emergencies, the report said, military use must clearly take priority over civilian use.

The United States already has a handful of dual-use facilities across the world, including three in Japan, but Yokota is particularly appealing, lying just 23 miles west of downtown Tokyo. Tokyo’s two major airports — Haneda and Narita — sit to the south and east of the city, leaving several million residents in the western part of Tokyo with a 1 / 2- or 2-hour commute if they want to catch a plane.

Tokyo, compared with other Asian cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, has a shortage of runway space for private business flights, meaning it gets passed over for major corporate events and conventions, city officials say.

Tokyo is also bidding for the 2020 Olympics, and although the bid does not depend on joint use of Yokota, gaining such access would spur train and road upgrades in the western part of the city and increase the “vibrancy” of Tokyo, said Takahiro Kojima, a Tokyo Metropolitan Government official in charge of the Yokota efforts.

Tokyo officials, along with those from the central government, are trying to keep the issue on the front burner. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called on President Obama during an April meeting to consider joint use of Yokota. Earlier this month, Tokyo released a report where it forecasted that 5.6 million passengers could fly into and out of Yokota by 2022.


Yuki Oda contributed to this report.