A top US diplomat yesterday underlined Washington’s commitment to relocating an unpopular military base on Okinawa, brushing aside calls to freeze the plan.
A group of influential US senators urged the White House earlier this month to reconsider 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.
However, Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told a news conference the US planned to go ahead with the move.
“It’s extraordinarily important for the United States and Japan to take steps to ease the burden on the people of Okinawa, both in terms of operations and in terms of bases, and I think we have done that and would like to do more,” Campbell said.
Tokyo and Washington have squabbled since 2009 over the fate of the base, where Okinawans have long complained of aircraft noise, the risk of accidents and crime associated with the base.
The dispute helped to bring down former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who mused openly about moving the base off Okinawa then backtracked to appease Washington, which says the base has crucial strategic value.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to relocate Futenma, 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.
Campbell was in Tokyo to meet Japanese officials ahead of the next ministerial security talks to be held in Washington, at a date yet to be announced.
The two countries are expected to reaffirm the relocation plan for the Marine base while agreeing to postpone the 2014 deadline for completing it in “two-plus-two” talks involving the US and Japanese foreign and defense ministers.
US President Barack Obama will meet Kan on the sidelines of next week’s G8 summit in France, to discuss the aftermath of the earthquake-tsunami tragedy.