By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - The governor of Japan's Okinawa on Friday approved a controversial plan to relocate a U.S. air base to a less populous part of the southern island, but said he would keep pressing to move the base off the island altogether.
The nod from Okinawa, long a reluctant host to the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan, is an achievement for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has promised a more robust military and tighter security ties with the United States amid escalating tension with China.
Skeptics, however, said it remained far from clear whether the relocation - stalled since the move was first agreed by Washington and Tokyo in 1996 - would actually take place given persistent opposition from Okinawa residents, many of whom associate the U.S. bases with crime, pollution and noise.
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.
Okinawa Governor Hirokazu 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 told a news conference.
The governor, however, added that he still believed 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 United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma base but plans for a replacement stalled in the face of opposition in Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the U.S. forces in Japan. Okinawa was occupied by the United States after Japan's defeat in World War Two until 1972.
In a statement, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed the approval of the landfill permit, and said that the Pentagon "remains committed to working with the government of Japan to build a strong and sustainable U.S. military presence with less impact on the people of Okinawa."
U.S. defense officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the move was an important step forward in U.S. efforts to further strengthen U.S.-Japan ties and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.
"We look forward to continuing our work with Japan to implement our consolidation plan on Okinawa, and continuing our progress with relocating Marines to Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific," Hagel said in his statement.
Japan's ties with the United States were strained when then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took office in 2009, sought to keep a campaign promise to move the U.S. base off Okinawa.
The Futenma base has been a lightning rod for criticism because of its location in a densely populated area.
Activists living in tents have been staging a protest near the site of the proposed Henoko base for almost 10 years and have promised demonstrations if Nakaima approves construction.
An election for the mayor of Nago next month could prove problematic if incumbent Susumu Inamine - who opposes the plan - is re-elected, while the central government could face a dilemma if demonstrators try to block construction.
"There are so many potential wild cards, so much that has to be done, that every small decision moves the process forward but by no means guarantees a final conclusion," said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank.
In April, the United States and Japan announced a plan to close Futenma as early as 2022.
Abe said the government would study whether that plan could be accelerated and would begin negotiating an agreement with the United States that could allow for more local oversight of environmental issues at U.S. bases.
That would address Nakaima's call to revise the bilateral Status of Forces agreement that has applied to U.S. military in Japan since 1960 but has never been officially revised.
Abe's government has also earmarked 348 billion yen for Okinawa's economic development in the draft budget for the year from April, a 15.3 percent increase from this year.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel and Chizu Nomiyama)