Mon, May 01, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Japanese officials head to US for talks on troop reshuffle

AFP , TOKYO

Japan's foreign and defense chiefs left for Washington yesterday to seal an agreement on reshuffling US troops in the country, amid new controversy over the huge price Tokyo may have to pay for the plan.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Fukushiro Nukaga, Director-General of the Defense Agency, are scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld today.

After the so-called "two-plus-two" meeting, they are expected to announce a package to implement an October accord to realign the US military presence in Japan to cope with new global security threats.

The package, originally due to be finalized by the end of March, has been delayed by a dispute over sharing the cost of moving 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Tokyo finally agreed to shoulder 59 percent of the US$10.27 billion for the relocation of the Marines and their 9,000 family members.

Washington had initially demanded it pay 75 percent of the tab, which includes construction of housing.

The two countries recently resolved another sticking point by agreeing to move a sprawling US Marine Corps air base from an urban area in Okinawa to a beach on the island.

There are currently more than 40,000 US troops in Japan, more than half of them in the Okinawa chain where islanders have long demanded a reduction in the US presence.

The US troop changes are part of a sweeping reorganization of US forces throughout East Asia.

But Tokyo was stunned when a senior Pentagon official said later that Japan may pay an estimated US$26 billion for the overall realignment.

Such a price tag could stall Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cost-cutting drive and fuel criticism of his alleged subservience to the Bush administration.

The additional spending would reportedly including costs to upgrade Japanese military forces as the US commitment is streamlined.

Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki yesterday called the figure an "asking price."

"It may have been inflated in various aspects," he said on the TV Asahi network.

"It is an arbitrary calculation," Taku Yamasaki, a close ally of Koizumi and former deputy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told Fuji TV.

He said he did not know the total cost "because no one in the government has made any accurate addition."

The figure was given on Tuesday by Richard Lawless, deputy defense undersecretary for Asia and Pacific affairs.

"On the whole islands of Japan, including Okinawa, let us say it is approximately US$20 billion. Adding to that their costs on Guam ... makes that total about US$26 billion," he said, according to Kyodo News.

Lawless called the sum "very rough, probably reasonably conservative estimates," adding: "This is a large expenditure on their part, a huge investment on their part in the alliance."

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe initially called the amount "incredible."

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