Japan yesterday brushed aside calls by three US senators to halt plans to relocate a controversial US military base within Okinawa, saying it was committed to the move.
The influential senators called on Washington to freeze plans to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa, saying Tokyo needed to focus on rebuilding from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the right-hand man of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, told a press conference: “There is no change in our policy to carry out the Japan-US accord steadily.”
Kan has promised to relocate the base, as originally agreed with Washington in a 2006 pact, from a crowded urban area to the quieter rural town of Henoko in Okinawa, despite strong local opposition.
The US senators — John McCain, Carl Levin and Jim Webb — said the two countries should consider moving Futenma’s operations to Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base and other locations in Japan and the US territory of Guam, ending the need for the contested new facility.
The base realignment plans “are unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable,” the senators said in a joint statement.
Webb, a member of US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party from Virginia, said the plan remained “rife with difficulties” and was too costly when Japan faced the “enormous burden” of reconstruction after the March 11 disaster.
The senators said that public support was also declining for the plan in Guam, which is due to take in 8,000 Marines from Okinawa in 2014. The senators called for a smaller permanent presence on Guam and instead to rotate US troops to the island from elsewhere.
Levin, a Democrat from Michigan who heads the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said the projected timelines in the realignment plan were “totally unrealistic.”
“Political realities in Okinawa and Guam, as well as the enormous financial burden imposed on Japan by the devastation resulting from the disastrous March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, also must be considered,” he said.
McCain, the top Republican on the committee, offered his support and said that the US should be open to reconsidering plans as Asia evolves.
“It’s very important to maintain strong bilateral alliances to ensure regional security and our national security interests,” the Arizona senator and former presidential candidate said.
However, the Pentagon stood by the 2006 agreement, saying that ordinary Okinawans would see fewer US troops as a result.
“These agreements are good for the people of Okinawa, Japan as a whole and the US-Japan alliance,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
Okinawa reluctantly hosts more than half of the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan under a post-World War II treaty. Some residents accuse the soldiers of noise and crime in what has become a persistent irritant between the allies.