Washington and Tokyo agreed yesterday to keep a contentious US Marine base on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa, reaffirming the importance of their bilateral security alliance amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The agreement cost coalition partner and Consumer Affairs and Gender Equality Minister Mizuho Fukushima her job for opposing the deal, major media reported.
The pacifist Cabinet minister, who leads the Social Democrats (SDP), had refused to support Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s decision to move US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, in northern Okinawa.
The agreement to move the base is broadly in line with a 2006 deal forged with the previous, conservative government, but represents a broken campaign promise on the part of Hatoyama.
Hatoyama came to office last September promising to create a “more equal” relationship with Washington and to move the air base off Okinawa, which hosts more than half the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan under a 50-year-old joint security alliance.
After months of searching and fruitless discussions with Washington and Okinawan officials, Hatoyama acknowledged earlier this month that the base would have to stay on the island.
A joint statement issued by the two allies yesterday appeared to highlight rising tension surrounding the March sinking of a South Korean ship blamed on a North Korean torpedo.
“Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the alliance,” it said.
US military officials and security experts argued it is essential for Futenma to remain on Okinawa because its helicopters and air assets support Marine infantry units and moving them off the island could slow coordination and response in times of emergency.
The US and Japan “recognized that a robust forward presence of US 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,” a statement issued by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said.
Reaffirmation of the 2006 deal comes as a relief for Washington.
In a telephone conversation yesterday morning President Barack Obama “expressed appreciation that the two countries could reach an agreement,” Hatoyama said.
The White House also said Obama and Hatoyama pledged to work closely with Seoul in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan.
The statement also called for sensitivity to Okinawans’ concerns.
“The ministers recognized the importance of responding to the concerns of the people of Okinawa that they bear a disproportionate burden related to the presence of US forces, and also recognized that the more equitable distribution of shared alliance responsibilities is essential for sustainable development of the alliance,” they said
The Cabinet met shortly after the meeting between Hatoyama and Fukushima, in which he reportedly decided to fire her, to endorse the US deal.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, will take over as consumer affairs minister, Jiji Press reported.