OKINAWA HOT POTATO

Officials deny plan to move U.S. Marines

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Top government officials on Friday denied that Washington plans to move 15,000 of the 20,000 U.S. Marines based in Okinawa out of Japan.

“Although Japan and the United States are holding a close security dialogue, we have received no information to this effect from the Pentagon, as has been reported,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a regular news conference. “It is not true.”

Fukuda, however, did not rule out a possible future repositioning of U.S. forces, saying Washington, while consulting with Japan, will reach a decision after considering the global composition of its forces and the international situation.

A Los Angeles Times story picked up by other media outlets, including The Japan Times, said the administration of President George W. Bush is considering moving most of the 20,000 marines in Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia.

The paper reported that the move is part of the Pentagon’s plan to reposition U.S. forces around the world, including the transfer of troops from the demilitarized zone in South Korea, to be closer to areas it considers unstable.

The report also said the Pentagon is mulling increasing the U.S. troop presence in Singapore and Malaysia, seeking agreements to base ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines.

In response to the report, Pentagon officials said that no final decisions on these issues have been made.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi also denied the reports, saying the U.S. would not put forward such an important issue without first consulting Japan.

Kawaguchi said that when Japan inquired about the news reports, the U.S. denied them.

“We should consider the issue (of the U.S. military presence in) Okinawa based on how the Japan-U.S. security alliance can be effectively utilized,” she said.

But Okinawa prefectural officials said Friday that a Pentagon press officer told them when asked about the media report that the U.S. is “considering” pulling out marines from the prefecture.

The officer said “you should carefully read the key words,” claimed one Okinawan official, who declined to be named.

At the same time, the Pentagon official said that while the issue was currently being discussed, the report was just one way of thinking and a final decision had yet to be made.

While some in the Defense Department feel a realignment of troops in Japan and South Korea is necessary, the matter needs to be discussed with the countries affected, the officer was quoted as saying.

Okinawa hosts two-thirds of the 47,000-strong U.S. military presence in Japan.

A string of violent crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, including the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen, have fueled local residents’ opposition toward their presence.

This is despite the fact that U.S. bases provide jobs for the prefecture hardest-hit by unemployment throughout the country.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Melbourne radio 3AW on Friday that the U.S. has not officially approached the government to have its troops based in Australia.

“It hasn’t been raised with me,” Howard told the radio station. “It hasn’t been raised with the defense minister.”

Some in the U.S. military might favor Australian-based troops, Howard said. But the prime minister said he would like to hear any proposal before making a decision.