Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sen. Webb open to options on Okinawa base dispute

Sen. Webb open to options on Okinawa base dispute

By Malcolm Foster, The Associated Press
Pacific edition, Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TOKYO — A member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee said Monday he's open to hearing options on how to resolve a dispute over the relocation of a controversial U.S. Marine base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Starting a weeklong tour in Japan and Guam, Sen. Jim Webb also called Toyota's recent recall problems — the subject of two congressional hearings next week — a "business issue" that wouldn't affect political ties between Japan and the United States.

U.S.-Japan relations have soured after the new Tokyo government put on hold a plan to move Futenma Marine airfield on the southern island of Okinawa — part of a broader 2006 agreement with Washington to reorganize the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan — because of local opposition.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who swept into power after last August's elections, has said he will make a decision on Futenma by May.

Webb, who has made numerous visits to Okinawa over the last 40 years, first as a Marine during the Vietnam War and later as a U.S. defense planner and government official, said the main purpose of his visit was to listen to the views of the Japanese government and people of Okinawa, where many resent the heavy U.S. military presence.

"There could be a number of practical options," Webb said about ways to resolve the Futenma issue. "I don't want to outline those options today because I don't want to cut short the discussions that we're going to have."

Webb, a Democrat who represents Virginia, said a solution needed to be found quickly "on the Futenma issue for the well-being of the citizens in that area."

"I am open to listening to all suggestions from the Japanese government and also the people of Okinawa," he told journalists at a news conference.

Last year, Webb made a high-profile trip to Myanmar to negotiate the release of American John Yettaw, who was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison after he had sneaked into the home of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Obama administration has insisted the Hatoyama government proceed with the 2006 plan to move Futenma to Nago, a city in a less crowded, northern part of Okinawa that recently elected an anti-base mayor.

Webb said he did not recommend moving Futema's facilities outside of Okinawa, as many local residents want, but he also suggested he didn't necessarily support the Obama's administration's position.

"We're not a parliamentary system, so I am not obligated to support the administration in a specific way," he said.

Webb, who is also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, met with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada later Monday.

Making his first trip to Japan since Hatoyama came to office in September, Webb said he didn't believe that U.S.-Japan ties had been weakened by the change in government in Tokyo, and stressed that Japan was Washington's most important ally in the region.

He also defended the U.S. military presence in Japan and the importance of having Marines based in Okinawa.

"I would ask you to consider what the stability of this region would look like if suddenly (the U.S.) were to withdraw its military from its bases in Japan, what temptations might follow that," he said.

Webb briefly touched on Japanese family law that gives only one parent — nearly always the mother — custody of children in cases of divorce. That has left many divorced American fathers from seeing their children in Japan.

The issue has become increasingly important in Washington. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell last month warned that if Japan doesn't address the problem it risks hurting ties with the U.S.

Webb said he hoped Japan's Ministry of Justice would work to arrange "proper custody arrangements" and that it could "be resolved through harmony between the two governments rather than bringing a big stick."

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