WASHINGTON – Japan and the United States began senior working-level talks Tuesday on the realignment of the U.S. military presence in Japan amid growing signs that an agreement is unlikely.
Several rounds of negotiations have already failed to meet a self-imposed deadline of March 31 to craft an implementation plan for a broad realignment agreement reached in October.
At issue during the three days of talks is sharing the cost for moving 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam and implementing a new plan for relocating the marines’ Futenma Air Station within the prefecture, which is opposed by local communities.
In past rounds of talks, the U.S. has proposed that Japan pay 75 percent, or $7.5 billion, of the $10 billion moving cost. Japan has offered to cover only $3 billion, including $2.5 billion for housing construction, through loans to be repaid by the U.S.
A senior official in Tokyo said it will probably be “difficult” to resolve the issues during this round and suggested that in the end, a top-level political decision may be necessary.
The meeting was initially planned for last week in Washington following the previous round in Tokyo a week before in a bid to meet the March 31 deadline. It was postponed to this week due to the death of former Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto. The northern Okinawan city is where the two nations plan to relocate the Futenma base.
Outside the negotiations, both sides have expressed readiness for a compromise, with some Japanese officials suggesting Tokyo bear up to 50 percent of the cost and a U.S. official saying the $10 billion figure is still a “preliminary” estimate with “so many variables in estimated costs.”
Washington, however, has indicated its reluctance about starting substantial negotiations on the cost issue until Tokyo gains local support about the Futenma relocation.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said the decade-old Futenma issue must be resolved first so it can be implemented together with the marine move to Guam as a “single” undertaking. They have even expressed flexibility over “technical adjustments” to the relocation plan if the Japanese government and local authorities agree on the adjustments.
But Tokyo has yet to win over authorities in Okinawa, especially Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro.
Under the October agreement, the two nations came up with an alternative plan of building an airfield in Camp Schwab and adjacent waters in place of building an offshore civilian-military airport on the reef offshore from the camp. The original plan had been stalled for nearly 10 years.
In a Tuesday evening meeting in Tokyo, Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga and the Nago mayor remained at loggerheads over the new plan, although they did agree to aim for a conclusion in their next meeting.