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U.S. ambassador stresses need for troops on Okinawa

Ambassador John Roos speaks Friday at Waseda University in Tokyo, where he made a case for the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance as the core of security in the region. “Make no mistake about it – the stakes are high,” Roos said before the packed auditorium in the school’s International Conference Center. “Our alliance is the critical stabilizing force in this area of the world.”

TERI WEAVER / S&S

By TERI WEAVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 31, 2010

TOKYO — The Marines stationed on Okinawa might be the least understood of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops serving throughout Japan, according to the United States’ top diplomat here in a Friday speech to explain to Japanese the importance of the military alliance.

“But in reality, it’s among the most critical of the forces we deploy in both peacetime and in the unlikely event of conflict,” Ambassador John Roos asserted Friday in a speech before students and faculty at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Those Marines are the region’s first responders by air and ground, Roos continued as he made his case for U.S. troops in Japan.

As China’s military spending grows and as North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs continue, Roos said, it’s up to the United States and Japan to maintain security in the area.

“Make no mistake about it — the stakes are high,” Roos said before the packed auditorium in the school’s International Conference Center. “Our alliance is the critical stabilizing force in this area of the world.”

His speech came a day after U.S. Forces Japan Lt. Gen. Edward Rice appeared on a two-hour Japanese TV program to talk about and field questions from viewers about the alliance.

Roos, since arriving in Japan last summer, has faced a new Japanese government less comfortable with the U.S. military presence than the former, more conservative ruling party.

Now the two countries are struggling to implement a 4-year-old security agreement that includes moving a U.S. Marine Corps air base from an urban part of Okinawa to a rural one.

The Marines and their helicopters on Okinawa can rapidly put troops and rescuers on the ground in the region, Roos said, which they’ve done a dozen times in the past five years for humanitarian crises. If there were no Marines on Okinawa, that response would then come from Hawaii, he added.

But it’s those helicopters at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, coupled with decades of heavy U.S. military presence on the poor, often-ignored prefecture, that have become a rallying cry for some against a current military realignment plan.

Now, the helicopters take off and land in densely populated Ginowan. Nago, a rural town selected as the new air station home, doesn’t want the air traffic. The town just narrowly elected a mayor who campaigned against the Marines’ move.

Roos, however, asked those concerned about the move to look beyond Okinawa.

“North Korea obviously remains the most immediate concern,” Roos said, because of both its military and a possible regime collapse.