The US accepted a Japanese proposal for the relocation of a US air station on Okinawa yesterday, resolving a dispute that had blocked progress on military realignment talks and caused friction between the two allies.
The plan, which scuttles a US-favored proposal to construct a heliport on a coral reef, will move the functions of Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma from a congested city to inside another US base on the island, Japan's foreign minister said.
Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura also said that upcoming broader talks on the realignment of the US military in Japan would lead to the reduction of thousands of the 14,600 US Marines on Okinawa. The US Embassy would not confirm that.
The agreement to relocate the Futenma base was welcomed by both sides.
"The plan we have accepted today ... provides a comprehensive, capable and executable solution for the replacement of Futenma in an expeditious and complete manner," US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless said at the US Embassy.
Japanese officials said the deal resolved what had been turning into a tense standoff over the relocation of the base. The plan to build a new heliport on reclaimed land had faced stiff opposition from environmentalists.
"There was a sense of emergency that not reaching agreement on the security issue, a central part of the US-Japan relationship, would seriously damage relations," Machimura told reporters.
Yesterday's deal lifted the main stumbling block to an agreement on the realignment of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan. An interim agreement on realignment is to be released in Washington during US-Japan talks on Saturday.
Washington and Tokyo agreed nearly 10 years ago to move the Futenma air station to a less crowded location on Okinawa as part of an overall plan to reduce the burden of the US military presence on the tiny island.
Okinawa hosts most of the US troops in Japan, and residents have long complained of crime, crowding and noise associated with the bases. Protests against the presence peaked in 1995 following the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen.
Machimura said cutting the number of Marines on the island would also soothe local opposition to the military presence.
"I want to show the people in Okinawa what kind of burden reduction there will be. It's going to be a very large scale reduction," he said, adding that the reduction would be "in the thousands."
Machimura did not say whether the Marines would be moved elsewhere in Japan or relocated to another country or the US. There are 14,460 US Marines in Japan, the largest contingent based overseas, and nearly all are on Okinawa.
US officials refused to comment on the Marines, saying that such issues would be worked out in the weekend talks in Washington.
On the Futenma dispute, research had already begun on a proposed replacement heliport to be build at Henoko off the coast of Okinawa. But environmentalists, residents and other opponents say the plan would wreck one of the area's last healthy coral reefs, and have mounted regular protests to block the research.
In the face of that opposition, Japan had come up with a proposal to combine the air station's functions with nearby Camp Schwab. Washington initially balked at that plan, in part because the US believed it too would be fought by residents.