Thursday, October 15, 2009

Japan defence minister says US troop agreement "humiliating"

Japan defence minister says US troop agreement "humiliating"

Thu, Oct 15, 2009
by Kyoko Hasegawa

TOKYO, JAPAN - Japan's new defence minister said Thursday that rules governing the US troop presence on Okinawa island were "humiliating" while conceding that a major American base would likely have to stay there.

Toshimi Kitazawa, whose centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power last month, was speaking ahead of a visit next week by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a month before a trip by President Barack Obama.

The minister stressed his party's message that, while Tokyo values the traditionally strong relationship with the United States, it is also seeking less subservient US ties than those under its conservative predecessors.

Japan wants "to build a new relationship that meets the requirements of the new era instead of getting mired in fears of offending them," the minister said, stressing however that the alliance remains "extremely important".

Next week, the 71-year-old minister said, he wants to have "candid talks" with Gates about the American military presence on southern Okinawa island, which is home to more than half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan.

A flashpoint has long been the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Base, located in a crowded urban area on the island, where residents have been angered by aircraft noise while community frictions with US service personnel have grown.

Anger rose especially after the 1995 gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl and the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by US military servicemen.

Under the 1960 Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement, the troops fall under American, not Japanese, criminal jurisdiction - although more recently indicted suspects in serious cases have been handed to Japanese authorities.

Despite this, the "people in Okinawa as a whole feel that the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement is humiliating," Kitazawa said.

"We will propose to review the agreement when Mr Gates comes here.

"People living close to US bases say "please close the US bases, eliminate the noise,"" he said. "We want to end the suffering and the burden endured by the Okinawan people who have long hosted the US bases."

He added: "Okinawan people have high hopes that change will come to their lives after the change of government."

Under a 2006 agreement struck under a conservative Japanese government and the US administration of George W. Bush, the air base is to be closed and relocated to a coastal area of Okinawa by 2014.

But new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said he wants the base to be moved off Okinawa, even out of Japan altogether, although this week he appeared to soften his stance.

Kitazawa said Tokyo wants to renegotiate the agreement on realigning US forces, which also includes a plan to move 8,000 US troops to Guam - although Washington has already indicated it expects the deal to stand.

But Kitazawa also said that Japan had few other options than to relocate the Futenma base somewhere within Okinawa.

"Regarding a relocation outside Okinawa, where else do we have?" he said.

"It's extremely difficult to find an alternative place in the current situation.

"In reality we can only slightly change the current plan," because of the geographical features of the Okinawan coast, Kitazawa said.

Hours earlier in Washington Japan informed White House and Pentagon officials that it would end an Indian Ocean naval refuelling mission backing the war in Afghanistan when its mandate expires in January.

The minister said that "the most feasible support Japan can offer in terms of Afghanistan is civilian support," adding that one option would be for Japanese air force planes to transport aid to Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Other issues to be discussed with Gates would include Japan's choice of next-generation fighter jets.

Although the US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 is one option, the minister said that "our choice is wide open to other options, of non-American-made jets." --AFP

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