Tuesday, October 20, 2009

‘Troop transfer to Guam pushes ahead’

‘Troop transfer to Guam pushes ahead’

Wednesday, 21 October 2009 03:16 by Lara Jakes | Associated Press

(ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY JET)— The top American defense official said Tuesday he expects a U.S. airfield to remain on Okinawa despite political pressure among Tokyo’s new leaders to shut it down.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the entire deal to relocate troops to Guam might fall through if the U.S. base were forced to move.

“It’s hard for me to believe that the Congress would support going forward in Guam without real progress with respect to the Futenma replacement facility," he said.

Gates was to meet Tuesday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on a visit to Tokyo where the Futenma air station was expected to be a top topic.

"There really, as far as we're concerned, are no alternatives to the arrangement that was negotiated," Gates told reporters late Monday as he headed to Japan.

At issue is the fate of the air field, a major Marine hub, in the wake of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's election last month.

U.S. and Japanese officials in 2006 agreed to shift 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam and to move the Futenma base to a new location on Okinawa to curb local residents' concerns of noise and crime. Some U.S. troops would remain at Futenma under that agreement.

But some members of Hatoyama's government want the base closed and its remaining U.S. troops moved out of Japan altogether. U.S. officials have hoped to resolve the issue by the time President Barack Obama arrives in Japan early next month.

Gates said he did not expect Hatoyama to renege on the agreement. The two men are scheduled to meet on Wednesday.

"This is an agreement between our countries, between our governments," Gates said. "And frankly I have every confidence that both sides will fulfill the commitments that they have made in this agreement."

He said he had no problem with Hatoyama's decision to review the agreement and cited "some flexibility" with where, precisely, the new base might be built on Okinawa. But ultimately, Gates said, the location is a matter for the local Okinawa government to decide with Tokyo.

The United States is Japan's key military ally, and an estimated 50,000 American troops are deployed there.

The issue of Japan withdrawing two of its naval ships from the Indian Ocean — tankers that have been used as refueling pit stops for Afghanistan-bound allies — will also be discussed over the next two days, Gates said.

However, it was unclear whether Gates thought he could reverse that decision.

"A number of countries benefit more from the refueling than the United States does," Gates said. "So I don't see the refueling as being a favor to the United States, but rather a contribution that the Japanese have made that is commensurate with its standing in the world as the second-wealthiest country and one of the great powers."

He added: "I'm sure we'll talk about it.”

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