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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japanese prime minister on Tuesday said it would take his government months to consider alternatives for relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, thrusting the years-long saga even farther from resolution despite U.S. insistence that Camp Schwab remains the only viable option.

After meeting with other ministers and the leaders of the two minority parties in his left-center coalition Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said his fledgling government simply needed more time.

“I understand the importance of the current agreement between Japan and the U.S.,” Hatoyama told reporters Tuesday in Tokyo, according to a transcript of a press conference at the prime minister’s residence Tuesday evening. “However, we are pursuing other alternatives … by understanding the Okinawan people’s sentiments. I think we need months.”

Japan officials said a working group comprising representatives of the three ruling coalition parties will consider multiple relocation plans, including the Camp Schwab one. Officials also confirmed that they will allocate funds to implement the current relocation plan from the state budget for fiscal 2010 and that ongoing environmental assessments will be continued.

“We have agreed that the three parties will consider how to reduce the burden of the Futenma facility,” said Tomoko Abe, a Social Democratic Party representative who attended the meeting.

In Washington on Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, who had been informed of the Japanese position, said the U.S. was not pressuring Hatoyama’s government but its stance was clear.

“I’m not aware that we’ve set up any kind of hard-and-fast deadline,” Kelly said during a daily press briefing. “We remain open to engaging the government of Japan, [to] helping support their own policy review. We believe the realignment roadmap that we’ve already agreed to is the best plan for reducing the burden on the people of Okinawa while maintaining our very important security relationship with Japan.”

Replacing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in urban southern Okinawa, with a new air facility in the rural northeast was a key to a 2006 bilateral agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan. U.S. officials say it’s the only option for shutting down Futenma and eventually moving major Marine commands, including more than 8,000 Marines and their families, to Guam in 2014.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway was unaware of Hatoyama’s statement.

“If that is their decision then I think it’s unfortunate in terms of what we’re attempting to plan on our end,” Conway said. “What the treaty says is that work on the Futenma replacement facility must be substantial in order for us to kick into gear and begin moving Marines to Guam and doing the necessary drawdown that, again, our countries had agreed upon.”

Any delay at this point, he said, puts the date of the Guam move in greater doubt.

Soon after Hatoyama took office in September he called for a review of the 2006 agreement, and the two junior members of the coalition — the People’s New Party and the SDP — have threatened to withdraw if Marine air operations are not moved to a site outside Okinawa.

In Naha on Tuesday afternoon, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said he welcomed the decision to review the relocation plan.

“It’s good that the three parties finally decided to sit down and discuss the issue squarely,” said Nakaima, a member of the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party. “Up to now, the government’s actions have changed like a daily lunch menu.”

Nakaima said whatever is decided, he wants the Futenma air station closed as soon as possible.

“My stance remains unchanged — to remove the danger posed by Futenma as soon as possible,” he said. “The best option is to move the operations outside Okinawa. But I worry this delay will only keep the base open longer.”

In Nago, the city where Camp Schwab is located, Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro said Tuesday that he was disappointed by the news from Tokyo.

“It is extremely regrettable that no concrete relocation site was selected,” he said.

The mayor, who supports the Camp Schwab plan, faces a strong anti-base opponent in an election next month.

And on Guam on Tuesday, some local leaders said Japan’s decision would not have an immediate effect on the massive buildup plan.

“We will continue to press forward,” said Shawn Gumataotao, deputy chief of staff for Guam Gov. Felix Camacho.

Guam Sen. Judith Guthertz, who chairs the island’s legislative military expansion committee, agreed.

“I don’t think realistically anything will change this year,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

However, she noted that in the long run it could jeopardize congressional spending and damage relations between the two countries.

“I think he’s playing with fire,” Guthertz said of Hatoyama. “He’s flexing his muscles. Domestically, it may look good to Okinawa. But it could hurt the relationship between Japan and the U.S.

“It could keep us in limbo.”

Last week, the U.S. Congress approved $738 million in spending toward the buildup plan, according to U.S. Rep. Madeleine Z. Bordallo, Guam’s only member of Congress. That budget, part of an omnibus military construction bill, is on its way to President Barack Obama for a signature.


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