Thursday, October 27, 2005

U.S. Agrees to Relocate Marines in Okinawa

U.S. Agrees to Relocate Marines on Okinawa
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 27, 2005; Page A15

Deal to Move Air Operations Resolves Long-Standing Dispute in Alliance With Japan

TOKYO, Oct 26 -- Japan and the United States reached a deal Wednesday to consolidate U.S. Marine airborne operations on Okinawa, resolving one of the thorniest issues of their strategic alliance and laying the groundwork for a broader realignment of more than 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on Japanese soil.

The plan calls for relocating operations from the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma -- located near a densely populated civilian area of Okinawa -- to another U.S. base on the island, officials from both countries said.

"There was a sense of emergency that not reaching agreement on the issue, a central part of the U.S.-Japan relationship, would seriously damage relations," Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.

Despite the accord, U.S. dismay at the pace of the talks was evident. The head of the U.S. delegation, Richard Lawless, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian & Pacific affairs, suggested Tuesday that the difficulties over such issues as Futenma had delayed a broader reshaping of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The United States has come to view the alliance as a cornerstone of regional security as China assumes a more assertive stance and North Korea is presumed to have become a nuclear-armed threat.

"We have to realize that we no longer have the luxury of interminable dialogue over parochial issues," said Lawless, speaking at a Tokyo conference sponsored by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

"If we are to bring the alliance to where it needs to be in the 21st century," Lawless said, "then we need to dramatically accelerate, across the board, to make up for the time lost to indecision, indifference and procrastination."

The initial decision to relocate the air station was made in 1996, but negotiations were drawn out because of protests to the U.S. presence, heightened by the 1995 rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.

The countries are also considering a greater role for U.S. troops stationed in Japan to respond to hot spots throughout the Asia-Pacific region as well as an increased integration of Japanese and American forces. U.S. officials have been pushing Japan to take on a greater role in the alliance by bolstering its defense capability.

The compromise announced Wednesday was reached after U.S. officials dropped their demands for a new offshore facility in Okinawa to replace the Futenma airstrip. It would have been constructed on some of the last pristine coral reefs in the area, which drew fire from environmentalists. Japan, on the other hand, insisted on consolidating the operations at the existing U.S. Marine base, Camp Schwab, also on Okinawa. While American negotiators had long argued that there was not enough space at Camp Schwab, the compromise calls for adding reclaimed land off the base's shoreline.

The Futenma issue was so divisive that many here said it played into the decision by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to skip Japan on his recent three-nation tour of Asia. Lawless headed the U.S. delegation instead, extending his stay to complete the agreement before a meeting in Washington this weekend between Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their Japanese counterparts on broader strategic issues, including troop realignment. Officials were also brushing up against another, more important deadline, President Bush's visit to Japan in mid-November.

The agreement has been hailed as a breakthrough, but many details have yet to be worked out. Particularly complicated is the question of where more than 3,000 Marines at Futenma will ultimately be relocated.

Machimura said that "thousands" of U.S. troops would be moved away from Okinawa. The U.S. government, however, has not yet said where and when those troops might go and has not dismissed stationing them elsewhere in Japan. Japanese diplomats have suggested such a move would be politically untenable given local opposition, saying the U.S. forces should be moved to Guam or the United States.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

US Military Retreats Over Japanese Base After Protests

US military retreats over Japanese base after protests by islanders
By David McNeill in Tokyo
Published: 27 October 2005

The United States has been forced to back down over its plan to build a large offshore military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa after local protests stalled construction.

Washington and Tokyo had wanted to build a heliport and 1.5-mile runway over pristine coral reef more than a mile offshore, near Heneko village. But the plan enraged many locals on the small island, which already hosts around half of the 37,000 American troops stationed in Japan. Environmentalists joined the opposition to the planned base, saying it would destroy the reef, which is home to the dugong, an endangered species of sea mammal.

Richard Lawless of the US Defence Department said yesterday that a compromise, which will entail moving the new base to nearby Camp Schwab, had been agreed after considering "the importance of the Japan-US alliance".

Tokyo is an important ally in America's "war on terror" and Washington considers Okinawa, which is close to China and North Korea, a vital military lynchpin amid a major realignment of US forces worldwide. Japan contributes more than $1bn (£560m) a year and leases thousands of acres of land to US forces stationed in the country.

A congressional report released two months ago by the Overseas Bases Commission recommended maintaining current US troop levels on Okinawa. It said: "Diminishing our combat capability on the island would pose great risk to our national interests in the region."

Washington and Tokyo agreed in 1996 to build a new heliport to replace Futenma base, which sits in the heart of Okinawa's densely populated Ginowan City. The agreement had been forced on the two governments by the largest anti-US protests in Okinawa's modern history. The protests followed the kidnap and rape of a 12-year-old girl by two US Marines and a sailor.

But the Heneko plan, announced after years of tortuous negotiations, then proved deeply unpopular: a survey by the Okinawa Times-Asahi Shimbun newspaper last year found that 81 per cent of local people opposed it and dozens of mainly elderly protesters began blocking test drilling for the site 18 months ago.

The stalling of the plan angered Washington and is widely blamed for the cancellation of a scheduled visit to Japan this month by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Tokyo was keen to resolve the dispute before President George Bush's visit next month; a relieved Japanese Secretary of Defence, Yoshinori Ono, said last night that the talks had been "long and difficult".

Despite the climb-down, however, protesters said last night that they were angry that the base was going to be built in Okinawa at all. Many said that the move to Camp Schwab would still mean construction would take place up to the shoreline.

"Tokyo and America just completely take us for granted. If they want a new base, why don't they build it on the mainland or outside Japan altogether?" asked one of the protest leaders, Osamu Taira. "The only reason that they foist it on us is because they know we are small and powerless. We will protest until this plan is scrapped and the military is gone from here."