Tuesday, October 27, 2009

US, Japan at odds over air base

US, Japan at odds over air base

By North Asia correspondent
Mark Willacy for AM

AM | abc.net.au/am

Play MP3 of Okinawa base not moving says US ( minutes)

Japan's new centre-left government is finding itself squeezed between the Obama administration and the people of the southern islands of Okinawa.

At the heart of the row is a US air base which the Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had suggested could be moved.

But the Obama administration has rejected any talk of re-locating the base outside of Okinawa.

It has cast a shadow over the US President's visit to Japan next month.

The United States has had air bases on Okinawa since 1945, when it occupied the island chain after a savage 82-day battle. There are now 14 US bases on Okinawa.

One of the biggest is Futenma, host of the 4,000-strong 1st Marine aircraft wing, which is located right in the heart of the city of 90,000 people.

Residents have long complained of noise and air pollution and threats to public safety from fighter jets, transport planes and attack helicopters - a protest which intensified after the crash of a Marine Corps helicopter into an Okinawa University five years ago.

During the election campaign two months ago, Mr Hatoyama spoke of moving Futenma out of Okinawa - an idea embraced by residents of the main island.

"I'd prefer to move Futenma right out of Okinawa," one protester said.

"There are too many US bases and personnel here as it is.

"The Government must not ignore calls from the people of Okinawa to remove this base - it must go," another resident said.

But the US marines are not going anywhere. While Washington has signed an agreement with Japan to move the Futenma base to another part of Okinawa, the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has rejected any talk of shifting the base out of the island altogether.

And Mr Gates is prepared to play hardball with the Japanese.

"Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no consolidation of forces and return of land in Okinawa," he said.

Washington would like to see this spat resolved before Mr Obama arrives, but Mr Hatoyama is refusing to be rushed.

"We won't have an agreement before Mr Obama's visit," Mr Hatoyama said.

"We must take heed of the feelings of the Okinawan people."

Mr Hatoyama has vowed to pursue a more equal relationship with Japan's closest ally, but it seems on this issue Washington will not budge.

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