Japan PM discusses options for US troops during Okinawa visit
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2012
NAHA, Okinawa — Japan and the United States are working out the details of closing some military facilities on Okinawa, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Monday during a visit here.
Noda delivered the news to local leaders and toured Camp Kinser, a Marine Corps base in Urasoe that could be shuttered, as senior U.S. and Japanese diplomats and defense officials met in Tokyo for a new round of negotiations aimed at reducing military forces on Okinawa.
The two allies announced earlier this month that they are revisiting a 2006 agreement on moving thousands of Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam and building a replacement base for Marine Corps air operations, an effort that has been delayed for years due to Okinawan opposition. As part of a new deal, Marines will be redeployed and U.S. military facilities will be closed even if the U.S. and Japan do not have Okinawa’s consent to move the Futenma air station to a new site farther north, according to a joint statement.
The effort to close bases and return land is a “concrete step toward reducing the burden on Okinawa,” which hosts about 75 percent of the U.S. military forces in Japan, Noda said during a meeting with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
The prime minister provided no time line for the return of the U.S. military property. Negotiations could take months, he said.
“Talks are currently under way between the U.S. and Japanese governments over U.S. military bases on Okinawa, including the relocation of Futenma operations, moving some Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and return of bases south of Kadena Air Base,” Noda said.
As forces are realigned, Okinawa would regain three main parcels of land, including Camp Kinser, the military’s Naha Port facility, and a portion of the central Marine Corps base of Camp Foster, according to existing plans.
The Futenma air station, located in the heart of Ginowan city, would also be returned following the relocation of aircraft and helicopters to a base to be built along the coast of Henoko.
The closures are being discussed during two days of U.S.-Japan security talks in Tokyo, which are the second round of high-level meetings regarding Okinawa since both countries announced changes to the 2006 realignment plan on Feb. 6, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The talks are aimed at fleshing out the details of the new agreement, which both governments have indicated will still include moving about 8,000 Marines off Okinawa.
Changes could include reducing the number of Marines redeployed to Guam to about 4,700 and sending thousands to foreign joint bases in Australia and the Philippines, as well as stationing others in Hawaii.
However, during his visit to Okinawa on Monday, Noda told local officials that there will be no changes to plans of moving Futenma operations into a new base on the island, despite the project “causing tremendous trouble and confusion.”
“What was confirmed between the U.S. and Japanese governments was that moving Futenma operations to Henoko is the only workable option,” he said.
Still, Noda reassured Nakaima that Futenma would not become a “permanent fixture” in its present location despite no clear solution to the impasse over the project.
Futenma has been the sticking point for the realignment plans since a deal was inked six years ago because many Okinawans say Marine Corps flight operations are noisy and dangerous and should be moved off the island.
Local opposition has continued to harden against the plan over the past six months even as Tokyo has stepped up efforts at pushing the relocation through.
This month, Nakaima dealt the project a hard blow when he issued an opinion that building a new air station would be environmentally devastating, despite reassurances by Tokyo to the contrary.
The move does not bode well for U.S. and Japan efforts — Noda and his administration are depending on the governor to approve construction permits for a new offshore airfield, which is a key feature of the planned Marine Corps facility.
During his meeting with Noda, Nakaima repeated the same position he has shared with the procession of central government officials that has come to the island in recent months in hopes of breaking the impasse.
“The plan to move the operations to Henoko would require enormous amount of time to make it happen,” Nakaima said during a Monday meeting with Noda. “I ask the government to look for other locations in Japan other than Okinawa.”