Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Okinawa base still a go, admiral says

Okinawa base still a go, admiral says

By Gregg K. Kakesako
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2010

The election of an Okinawa mayor who opposes relocation of a U.S. Marine air base to his city will not affect a 1996 deal to realign U.S. forces in Japan, says the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.

On Sunday, Susumu Inamine was elected mayor of Nago, where Camp Schwab, a Marine base, is located in northern Okinawa. Inamine opposes the plan negotiated by the administration of former President Bill Clinton that set aside Schwab as the replacement for Futenma, the current home of all Marine helicopters and air crews assigned to Okinawa.

"I don't think this should be regarded as a setback," said Adm. Robert Willard, who leads all U.S. military forces in Pacific.

He said yesterday he believes the relationship between Japanese and U.S. leaders is "growing stronger" as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Futenma is in the urban center of Ginowan, a city in southern Okinawa where a Marine helicopter crashed in August 2004 on the campus of a university adjacent to the base.

"I think we have a good amount of work to do to reinforce to the Japanese people, to the extent we can, why we are there," he said.

Willard said that the relationship between Japan and the United States is "a cornerstone alliance" in Asia. "It's important that we take this opportunity this year to share that message with the people of Japan who we are aligned with and the rest of the people in the region."

Willard said the Obama administration is still getting acquainted with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was elected last summer, on promises to move U.S. bases off Okinawa or out of Japan. The victory of Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan in August ended a half-century of control by the Liberal Democratic Party. Under pressure from President Barack Obama, Hatoyama has said he will decide by May whether he will support the 1996 plan.

Inamine's victory is seen as a victory for opponents of the 1996 plan and a litmus test of public opinion on Okinawa. Almost half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are assigned to Okinawa.

For operational purposes, Willard said, helicopters and air crews need to be near the Marine forces stationed on Okinawa.

"Very simply, the Marines require attendant air capability with their force lay-down in Okinawa. The Futenma replacement facility to date is the single best option for achieving that. That is what we are trying to explain to the Japanese people."

Willard, in his first news conference since taking command in October, also said:

» Negotiations are under way with North Korea to send recovery teams from the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base to resume the search stopped in 2005 for soldiers killed in the Korean War.

» He has been invited to China this year, along with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

01:30:00 a.m. Wednesday January 27, 2010 in Pacific/Honolulu converts to
09:30:00 p.m. Wednesday January 27, 2010 in Pacific/Guam

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