U.S. and Japan strike deal on American military presence, move ahead on realignment | VailDaily.com

U.S. and Japan strike deal on American military presence, move ahead on realignment

TOKYO – The United States on Wednesday averted a possibly damaging battle over the large American military presence in Japan, striking a deal with its top ally in Asia over the relocation of a Marine base in Okinawa and paving the way for broader realignment talks this weekend.Under a Japanese proposal, the U.S. agreed to close the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in the crowded southern part of the island and move its functions to Camp Schwab in the north, officials said.Both sides compromised on the major sticking point in the deal: construction of a heliport on reclaimed land off Okinawa, which Japanese environmentalists had argued would threaten a coral reef, according to Japanese media reports.The U.S. agreed to build only part of the heliport on reclaimed land, but managed to negotiate a longer runway than the Japanese had sought, the Kyodo News Agency said.The agreement opens the way for high-level talks on Saturday in Washington on the broader realignment of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, part of the American effort to streamline its military overseas and create a leaner, more flexible fighting force.”There was a sense of emergency that not reaching agreement on the security issue, a central part of the U.S.-Japan relationship, would seriously damage relations,” Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters, referring to the troop realignment.Richard Lawless, U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense and lead American negotiator in the talks, declined to comment on why the U.S. changed its position, but said the plan “provides a comprehensive, capable and executable solution for the replacement of Futenma in an expeditious and complete manner.”The realignment talks could lead to the reduction of thousands of U.S. Marines on Okinawa, Machimura said. Kyodo News Agency said 4,000 Marines would be relocated to other parts of Japan or to Guam under the plan, but U.S. officials refused to comment on the number. There are 14,460 U.S. Marines in Japan, the largest contingent based overseas, and nearly all are on Okinawa.Okinawans have long complained of crime, crowding and noise associated with the American bases. Protests against the presence peaked in 1995 following the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.Machimura said cutting the number of Marines on the island would soothe local opposition to the military presence.”I want to show the people in Okinawa what kind of burden reduction there will be. It’s going to be a very large-scale reduction,” he said.However, some residents said they were still upset with the deal struck Wednesday.”We’re not satisfied that a new facility will be constructed in Okinawa,” said Yoichi Iha, mayor of Ginowan City, where Futenma is currently located. “The agreement ignores demands by the Okinawan people that their burden be lightened by transferring the U.S. bases out of Okinawa, or out of Japan.”A group of mostly elderly locals continued a sit-in protest near Camp Schwab against the U.S. military presence, Kyodo said. The opposition group has been staging protests there for more than a year.Washington and Tokyo agreed nearly 10 years ago to move the Futenma base as part of an overall plan to reduce the military’s burden on island residents.Research already had begun on a proposed replacement heliport to be built off the coast near Camp Schwab. But environmentalists, residents and other opponents said the plan would wreck one of the area’s last healthy coral reefs and have mounted regular protests to block the research.In the face of that opposition, Japan came up with a proposal to combine the air station’s functions with Camp Schwab. Washington initially balked at that plan, in part because the U.S. believed it, too, would be fought by residents.—Associated Press Writer Kana Inagaki contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado

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