WASHINGTON: The United States and Japan agreed yesterday to relocate a controversial U.S. air base to a less densely populated area on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma had been a subject of intense political debate in Japan that led to the possibility of the base being moved off the island entirely, despite a 2006 agreement to relocate it on Okinawa.
Talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for the United States and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa for Japan addressed a range of security concerns and yielded substantial agreement, officials said.
For years, Okinawans have said they carry the majority of the burden of hosting American forces in Japan, and the agreement vows “to reduce the impact on local communities, including in Okinawa, thereby preserving a sustainable U.S. military presence in Japan,” according to a joint statement issued by the security and consultative committee.
“The [committee] members expressed their shared commitments to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and return the base to Japan as part of the alliance transformation and realignment process,” the statement said.
Other realignment initiatives — including the relocation of about 8,000 Marines and 9,000 family members from Okinawa to Guam — depend on completion of the Futenma replacement facility. The relocation to Guam will return of most of the U.S. facilities south of Kadena Air Base to Japan.
“Bearing this in mind, the two sides intend to verify and validate that this Futenma relocation plan appropriately considers factors such as safety, operational requirements, noise impact, environmental concerns and effects on the local community,” according to the statement.
The agreement confirms that the replacement facility will be at the Camp Schwab Henoko-saki area and adjacent waters. The ministers put an end-of-August deadline for completion of a study of the replacement facility’s location, configuration and construction method. Verification and validation will be completed by the time of the next security consultative conference, officials said.
The committee also looked at ways to mitigate the burden that Okinawans bear. The two sides committed to expand the relocation of U.S. forces training activities off the island. Japanese military facilities and areas in mainland Japan may also be used. “Both sides also committed to examine the relocation of training outside of Japan, such as to Guam,” the statement said.
The committee’s statement recognizes that the alliance remains indispensable not only to the defense of Japan, but also to the peace, security, and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. The talks were conducted in the shadow of North Korea sinking a South Korean warship in March. The tensions in the region have increased, officials noted, and also reaffirmed the need for the Mutual Security and Cooperation Treaty between the United States and Japan.
In light of the uncertainty of the situation in Korea, the talks reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security.
“Japan reconfirmed its commitment to playing a positive role in contributing to the peace and stability of the region,” the statement said. “Furthermore, the [committee] members recognized that a robust forward presence of U.S. military forces in Japan, including in Okinawa, provides the deterrence and capabilities necessary for the defense of Japan and for the maintenance of regional stability.”
The ministers also pledged a “Green Alliance” between the nations on bases, and said both nations would be good environmental stewards. The two sides intend to study opportunities to expand the shared use of facilities between U.S. and Japanese forces, which would contribute to closer bilateral operational coordination, improved interoperability and stronger relations with local communities, officials said.
The ministers also affirmed their intention “to intensify communication with communities in Okinawa on issues of concern related to the presence of U.S. forces.” The two sides committed to explore cooperation in such areas as information technology initiatives, cultural exchanges, education programs and research partnerships.
The ministers agreed to intensify their ongoing bilateral security dialogue. “This security dialogue will address traditional security threats, as well as focus on new areas for cooperation,” the statement said.