Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked U.S. Sen. John McCain on Wednesday to ensure Washington allocates budgetary funds to help cover the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps personnel to Guam from Okinawa, as agreed upon by the two countries.
At a separate meeting in Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and the senator agreed to move forward the overall plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan to ease the base-hosting burden on the prefecture, Japanese officials said.
The forward-looking stance taken by the veteran senator, the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential race, could signal a change on the marine relocation issue, whose slow progress is blamed both on Senate reluctance over the potential costs and opposition in Japan to an accord to build a new marine base to replace one in a crowded residential area.
“I express my appreciation for your efforts (to bolster) the Japan-U.S. alliance . . . ,” Abe told McCain at the outset of their meeting at the prime minister’s office.
The senator congratulated Abe for his leadership, noting the prime minister has given hope not just to the Japanese people but also to the United States and the world through his “Abenomics” economic policies.
At a press conference after the meeting with Abe, McCain said the two had discussed Abe’s constitutional reform drive and agreed it would strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and reinforce Japan’s national security. Abe seeks to reinterpret the Constitution in order to allow Japan to exercise its right to engage in collective self-defense, and he also wants to amend the war-renouncing Article 9.
The current environment presents challenges not foreseen when the Constitution was introduced in 1947, including piracy and a need to aid allies such as the United States if they are attacked, McCain said.
During the meeting at the Defense Ministry, Onodera also expressed appreciation for a U.S. Senate resolution in late July condemning the use of force to assert claims to disputed islets in the East and South China seas, in light of China’s growing maritime assertiveness.
“We will continue to conduct warning and surveillance activities” in the East China Sea, Onodera said, adding that Tokyo has been calling on Beijing to set up hotlines to prevent “accidents.”
McCain, who exerts influence over the U.S. defense budget as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced concern about China’s increased maritime aggressiveness and backed Tokyo’s position on the issue.
“We continue to hear rhetoric from certain authorities in China, which is not helpful,” McCain said, adding that a recent rise in the number of patrol ships in waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which in recent years have also been claimed by China, does not bode well for “a peaceful resolution” of the current situation.
Japan has been concerned about an increasingly provocative China, which has continued to send patrol ships near the uninhibited islets since Tokyo effectively nationalized them last September.
The islets, called the Diaoyu by China, have been at the center of heightened tensions, preventing the leaders of Japan and China from holding a summit.
McCain also described the islets as “Japanese territory,” deviating from the official U.S. stance in which the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islets but acknowledges they are under Japan’s control.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Wednesday with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the senator said: “The Congress in the United States resolution last year said the (Senkakus are) Japanese territory. That is our position as a congress and as a government. I will continue to repeat that when I go to China.”
McCain said nations feeling increasingly threatened by China’s maritime presence “need to act in closer coordination with each other” and present a united front to Beijing by first reconciling their own overlapping claims to ocean territories.
On the relocation of U.S. bases, Onodera stressed the importance of following through on the bilateral agreement reached in April last year to transfer some 9,000 of the 19,000 U.S. Marines in Okinawa to Guam, as doing so will help ease the excessive burden on the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.
The accord had called for relocating the marine contingent upon completion of a new air base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but work on the replacement facility has been stymied by local opposition, even though it is supposed to be completed and up and running next year.
McCain agreed it is necessary for both Washington and Tokyo to accelerate efforts to complete the realignment of U.S. forces in Asia, and address the Okinawa relocation issue, a Defense Ministry official said.
Still, the outlook for securing enough funds to transfer the marines remains uncertain in the U.S., as the Senate has called for more details and clarity on the plan amid concerns about a potential increase in relocation costs in a time of fiscal difficulty.
Onodera and McCain also discussed the thorny issue of replacing the Futenma base, located in a densely populated area, with the planned new airstrip that would extend offshore in a less-crowded part of Okinawa Island, as the senator expressed hope that Tokyo will be able to gain local approval for the necessary land-fill work.
The people of Okinawa have opposed the replacement base and want Futenma closed, and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has yet to make a final decision on whether to approve Tokyo’s application to fill in the offshore area.