The US and Japan are examining the possibility of reducing the American troop presence in Japan, but haven't delved into details yet, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday.
Rumsfeld, who held an hourlong meeting with Japanese Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba earlier, said the two sides had just begun discussing the topic.
"But we don't have any specifics because it will take a good deal of discussion and consideration. We're not at the stage of making proposals or anything like that, but rather at initiating discussions," said Rumsfeld, who is in Tokyo for a six-day trip to Asia.
Changes to US troop deployments are part of the Pentagon's worldwide review of American forces overseas that officials say is vital in the post-Sept. 11 era of terrorism and other security threats.
Ishiba said Tokyo is in favor of cutbacks for American troops on the southern island of Okinawa.
Located about 1,500km southwest of Tokyo, Okinawa is important to the US-Japan security alliance because of its strategic location in the Pacific Ocean.
Although US bases offer a major boost to the island's struggling economy, crimes involving US military personnel in recent years have intensified demands from Okinawans for US forces to be removed or relocated to other parts of the country. The US has roughly 50,000 troops in Japan under a mutual security pact.
"Seventy-five percent of the US military's presence is on Okinawa. The government realizes that we are asking Okinawans to shoulder a huge burden," Ishiba told reporters, adding that Tokyo is working to "lessen that burden."
Still, both Rumsfeld and Ishiba stressed that neither side felt it necessary to renegotiate the bilateral security alliance that has existed for about a half century.
Rumsfeld and Ishiba also discussed a possible Japanese dispatch of peacekeepers to help out with postwar Iraqi reconstruction, but they didn't offer any details. Ishiba said he wanted to dispatch troops "as soon as possible."
Tokyo had hoped to send troops to Iraq by the end of the year to help rebuild the country. Japan's pacifist post-World War II constitution restricts its military to a non-combat role overseas.
But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said on Thursday that the country still isn't secure enough, following the suicide bombing attack in the city of Nasiriyah that killed 32 people.
Ishiba said his government "will closely watch the situation" in Iraq before making a final decision.
"We are confident that our friends here will make decisions that are appropriate to them and that is what we want them to do," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said he hopes to restart talks between the two sides over dealing with US military personnel suspected of crimes. Those talks broke down in July over differences between how quickly American suspects can be handed over to Japanese police.
Tokyo has been pressing Washington to relinquish custody of military personnel accused of rape, murder and other serious crimes once local authorities have issued warrants for their arrest. But US officials say they want assurances that American military personnel be treated fairly by the Japanese criminal justice system.
The rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995 sparked outrage on Okinawa and led the two countries to agree that US authorities would consider requests for early handovers. Since then, only two US servicemen stationed on the island have been turned over to local police before indictment.