Ambassador: Differences about troops on Okinawa ‘narrowing’
NAHA, Okinawa — The U.S. ambassador to Japan says “very difficult” negotiations remain between the United States and Japan on a plan to realign the U.S. military on Okinawa. However, Thomas Schieffer said he’s confident the details can be worked out and plans will move forward to transfer Marine air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab and some 7,000 Marines to Guam and mainland Japan.
Schieffer was on Okinawa on Monday to visit with local officials and address the Okinawa Association of Corporate Executives.
“The friendship between our two nations is unique in the world,” he said in a luncheon speech, pointing out that the alliance has “never been stronger” and is the “linchpin of our foreign policy in Asia.”
“Tyranny knows it has a formidable foe in the alliance between the United States and Japan,” Schieffer said, adding that the alliance is transforming.
Part of that transformation, he said, is the October agreement between the United States and Japan to realign U.S. forces in Japan. He called the military realignment report a “broad conceptual agreement” and acknowledged that Okinawan officials have given it a lukewarm reception.
“We’re in the process now of negotiating the details of how this will be done,” he said. “I am hopeful that after completion of these discussions, we can reach an agreement that everyone can support.”
He told the executives that he had met with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine earlier in the day, and “we are narrowing our differences.” He said Inamine indicated the interim report, to be finalized sometime next month, is acceptable with the exception of the “Futenma question.”
The interim report called for replacing MCAS Futenma with an air facility to be built on Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in the shallow waters of Oura Bay. It has been met with near universal opposition by Okinawa officials, who had favored an air base, jointly used by civilian aircraft, to be built on reclaimed land and a reef about two miles offshore, near Camp Schwab.
In 1996, the two countries agreed MCAS Futenma, located in the middle of urban Ginowan in central Okinawa, posed a hazard to the surrounding community and needed to move to a more remote area of Okinawa. The crash of a Marine helicopter on the grounds of adjacent Okinawa International University in August 2004 heightened the fears of the base’s neighbors.
Schieffer told Stars and Stripes that the proposal to build an airstrip on Camp Schwab is an integral part of the realignment plan, which also calls for the move of some 7,000 Marines off Okinawa, some 6,000 of them to Guam. That would include moving headquarters of the III Marine Expeditionary Force to Guam and consolidating most Marine bases south of Kadena Air Base to existing Marine bases in northern Okinawa.
“[Gov. Inamine] basically told me that he could accept the plan if the Futenma issue could be resolved,” Schieffer said. “So obviously, it’s coming down to that issue, and it’s a very difficult issue. But I’m hopeful that somehow we can listen to folks and come up with some sort of resolution that people can be happy with.”
Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.