The US and Japan said on Friday they remain committed to their plan to transfer 8,000 US Marines from the Japanese island of Okinawa to the US territory of Guam, a move long delayed by a political stalemate in Japan.
The two countries agreed in 2006 to shift the US marines’ Futenma airbase in Okinawa to Henoko, a less crowded area on the island, and also move 8,000 marines to Guam.
However, successive Japanese governments have yet to win support for the 2006 Realignment Roadmap from Okinawa residents, who blame US bases for noise, pollution and crime, and are not satisfied with base transfers within the sub-tropical island which is host to about half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan.
In June last year the two allies agreed to drop their 2014 deadline for the transfer and work to complete the transfer at the earliest possible date.
Officials in Tokyo and Washington denied a report by the Bloomberg news agency quoting unnamed US officials as saying the administration of US President Barack Obama had decided to scrap the Guam move in favor of rotating the Okinawa-based marines through other Asian countries.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called reporters to a special briefing in Tokyo on Friday night, saying, “the report may generate misunderstanding.”
“We are in talks with the US side, with flexibility in our mind, to seek ways to advance the relocation of Futenma airbase and the shift of Okinawa-based US marines to Guam, while upholding policy of reducing the burden on Okinawa in a timely manner and maintaining deterrent effects,” he said.
Gemba said that “nothing has been finalized” in discussions that have ground on for years over an issue that claimed one Japanese prime minister.
“I want to tell you that both Japan and the US still see Henoko as the best site for the relocation of Futenma airbase and no change has been made to a plan that about 10,000 US Marines will remain in Okinawa,” said Gemba, who put the total number of marines on Okinawa at about 18,000.
In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Leslie Hull-Ryde said: “no decisions have been made with regard to possible adjustments to the Guam Relocation Plan,” but that “the two governments are now communicating closely and in a flexible manner regarding the way ahead on a number of related issues.”
“We continue to support the principles of the 2006 Realignment Roadmap and to pursue a military presence in Japan and the Asia Pacific region that is operationally resilient, geographically distributed and politically sustainable,” she said in an e-mail.
Hull-Ryde also said the US was committed to developing Guam as a strategic hub and establishing a marine corps presence on Guam.
Several senior US senators last year raised questions about the cost, estimated at more than US$20 billion, of building facilities in Guam. Since then, pressure to trim the Pentagon budget has risen.
While the debate over forces in Okinawa has played out the Obama administration has reached agreements with Singapore and Australia to allow visits of ships or troops on rotation, as part of an overall rebalancing of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Western Pacific.