U.S. is urged to return Okinawa sites

Kyodo

Tokyo asked Washington to return some military sites in Okinawa at an early date during the latest bilateral talks Monday on redeploying U.S. Marines in the Asia-Pacific region, Japanese officials said.

The request to return part of Camp Zukeran and the Makiminato Service Area was made in connection with a U.S. plan to move about 4,700 marines in Okinawa to Guam, ahead of the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another part of Okinawa Island, the officials said.

Under the existing bilateral accord, the return of six facilities and land occupied by the U.S. military south of the U.S. Air Force Kadena base is tied to the relocation of the Futenma base.

“I believe the U.S. side will consider the request,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

The official said the burden on Okinawa of hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan must be reduced in conjunction with the planned transfer of marines ahead of making progress on the Futenma relocation.

During working-level talks in Washington, the two countries, however, confirmed they will stick to the current plan to relocate the Futenma air base to the shores of Camp Schwab on the Henoko coast of Nago, which is less densely populated than Ginowan, where the base is now located, despite strong local opposition, the officials said.

The 2006 bilateral accord on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan sets progress on relocating Futenma as a precondition for moving around 8,000 of the 18,000-strong marine contingent from Okinawa to Guam.

The Pentagon is now planning to move 4,700 marines to Guam, while deploying 3,300 elsewhere in the Pacific, including Hawaii, Australia and the Philippines, as part of its strategy to keep China’s increasing military activities in the Asia-Pacific region in check.

The United States also has sounded out Japan on a plan to transfer about 1,500 marines to the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, sources said Monday.

Prior to the talks, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a briefing that the U.S. remains “fully committed” to carrying out the Futenma relocation within Okinawa based on the 2006 bilateral accord.

Nuland also said the U.S. continues to “pursue a military presence in Japan and in the Asia-Pacific that’s operationally resilient, that’s geographically distributed and that’s politically sustainable.”