A top US envoy welcomed “promising” signs of compromise from Japan as he headed to Tokyo yesterday for talks on resolving a long-simmering row over an unpopular American military airbase.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said Washington had now received “serious proposals from the Japanese government that included promising elements.”
His comments, reported in Japanese in the Asahi Shimbun, came before his expected arrival in Tokyo yesterday evening.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said he wanted “to put the final touches” to a government proposal on where to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa.
Both sides declined to clarify how they intend to end the dispute, which has seriously strained ties between the Pacific allies and raised the political heat on the seven-month-old Hatoyama government.
On Sunday, 90,000 protesters rallied on Okinawa to demand that the US base be moved off the island to reduce the burden of aircraft noise, pollution and the threat of accidents.
The row erupted last year when Hatoyama promised to review a 2006 agreement to move the Futenma base from a crowded urban area of Okinawa to a coastal stretch of the subtropical island, where residents also oppose it.
Hatoyama has since explored several alternatives, including moving some air operations to Tokunoshima island, north of Okinawa, but residents there have also protested against the idea of hosting US forces.
Hatoyama has scrambled for options ahead of a self-imposed May 31 deadline and his ministers have made at times contradictory remarks on the issue.
Washington has consistently said it prefers the original 2006 relocation plan, which itself was a decade in the making, but has also signaled increasing willingness to listen to Japan’s alternative proposals.
Speaking with Kyodo News on Monday, Campbell said both sides were discussing “relocating substantial elements of US forces out of highly and densely populated areas, moving some capacities out of Okinawa and also further steps towards easing noise and other operational issues.”
Last week Campbell told the Yomiuri Shimbun that the US side wanted to see “specific, well-crafted proposals” rather than ideas and concepts, saying the time had come “to move forward expeditiously.”
On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Tokyo had agreed to broadly honor the 2006 pact, with only some modifications — a report that the Japanese government denied.
Hatoyama said on Saturday, on the eve of the mass rally, that building V-shaped offshore runways on landfill through coral reefs in Okinawa, as agreed in the original deal, would be “blasphemy against nature.”
Meanwhile, Hatoyama and his party suffered a harsh blow ahead of the mid-year election after a judicial panel said yesterday that ruling party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa should be charged over a funding scandal.
Hatoyama’s ratings have already nosedived, eroded by his perceived mishandling of a feud over the US Marine base as well as funding scandals, dimming the chances of a decisive Democratic Party victory in an upper house poll expected in July.
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