Okinawa marine transfer idea nixed

ONOJO, Fukuoka Pref. (Kyodo) Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has expressed opposition to transferring all U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa to Guam, saying the 18,000-strong contingent in the prefecture plays a “very important role” in preventing conflicts in the region.

Kitazawa told a political rally in Fukuoka Prefecture on Sunday that the presence of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, located between Kyushu and Taiwan, has been a deterrent against China, which has been conducting maritime surveys with submarines in the sea area.

“Chinese submarines have been frequently navigating around Japanese islands in the sea area covering Kagoshima, Okinawa and Taiwan. Japan and the United States believe that allowing encroachment by China into the area would endanger the peace and security of the entire Asia-Pacific region,” Kitazawa said.

“China is trying to get rid of U.S. influence in the sea area,” he said. “We should never create a vacuum in the area. If all the marines in Okinawa are transferred to Guam, we cannot defend” those islands.

Kitazawa was apparently referring to the Social Democratic Party’s idea of transferring the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Under a 2006 Japan-U.S. accord on the U.S. forces realignment, about 8,000 marines would move from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 once the Futenma airstrip is relocated to a coastal area at Camp Schwab in Nago, northern Okinawa.

The Democratic Party of Japan-led government, of which the SDP is a small partner, has been looking for an alternative relocation site to ease the base-hosting burden in Okinawa. The SDP advocates moving the base in its entirety to Guam.

Kitazawa asked the government task force headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano to present alternative candidate sites by the end of this month so Japan and the United States can find a solution to the relocation issue by the end of May, the deadline set by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.