Gen. David Berger, the new U.S. Marines commandant, acknowledged Wednesday that he is concerned about deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea, both key regional allies, but also expressed hopes that politicians would work out a resolution.
Berger stressed that Japan and South Korea have common interests despite their differences, such as the threat posed by China and pursuing stability in Asia.
“I’m optimistic it will get worked out,” said Berger, during his first trip to Japan after being appointed to his post.
Besides meetings with Japanese government and military officials, his visit also includes traveling to Okinawa, where most of the U.S. forces here are based. He heads to South Korea later this week.
Bilateral relations worsened after Tokyo removed South Korea’s preferential trade status in early July. South Korea has decided to strip Japan of its own preferential trade status, with the new rules taking effect in September.
Seoul sees Tokyo’s initial move as retaliation for South Korean court rulings that Japanese companies must compensate South Korean wartime forced laborers. Japan says it was driven by a security issue.
Berger declined to comment on what might happen if South Korea makes good on the threat to end an agreement with Japan to share military intelligence, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, which went into effect in 2016. He said such sharing was important from a military standpoint, and discussions were ongoing outside the military.
“I never said I was not concerned. We are. What I did say is we have a common focus on an assessment of what the near and long-term threats are. But absolutely we should all be concerned when any part of any alliance has some challenges,” said Berger.
“I am confident that the right leaders are talking. I am confident that we all share a common view of the threat to stability in this region.”
Berger met Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday and confirmed that their countries will redouble efforts to reinforce their alliance.
“Through frequent mutual visits by top-level officials, Japan-U.S. ties have become even stronger,” Suga said at their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.
In response, Berger, who took the post in July, expressed his intention to work harder to strengthen the alliance.
The two also confirmed their view that the burden of hosting U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture will be reduced through the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the densely populated Okinawa city of Ginowan, to the Henoko coastal area in Nago, also in Okinawa, and the transfer of U.S. Marines in the prefecture to Guam.
While in Okinawa, Berger will visit Henoko, where a U.S. Marine air station is being built on a coastal landfill.
Many residents want the base moved completely off Okinawa, and its new governor, Denny Tamaki, was elected last year after campaigning on that demand.
Berger played down worries about delays and said construction was going smoothly, while stopping short of giving a detailed timeline.
He said that earlier he had checked construction of a U.S. Marine facility in the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
“I think the progress is solid,” he said, adding that the overall plan to begin the Guam move in the early 2020s is “on track.”
Japan sees the U.S. as its most important ally. Berger noted that the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces work closely together.
“This is the most consequential region for us. Our alliance with Japan is an essential part of that,” he said.