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Japan and the United States agreed last week to a new plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from urban Ginowan in the central part of Okinawa Island to Camp Schwab, located in Nago in the northern part of the island.

The two countries also announced an interim report over the weekend on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and stepped-up cooperation between those forces and Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to both strengthen the U.S. deterrence in East Asia and reduce the burden placed on local communities around the bases. It is regrettable that the changes, which are great, were announced without prior explanations to the public.

These changes come at a time when East Asia faces potential crises such as North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development and a military clash between China and Taiwan. The Japanese government needs all the more to make diplomatic efforts to eliminate seeds of conflict in the region, reduce friction with neighboring countries and alleviate possible misgivings over closer Japan-U.S. military ties.

The settlement of the Futenma issue is a step forward since the heliport will be removed from a congested residential area. But Okinawan residents will remain dissatisfied because Okinawa — while occupying only 0.6 percent of the Japanese territory — will continue to host 75 percent of U.S. bases in Japan in terms of area.

Behind the Futenma base relocation plan was Okinawan residents’ resentment against the presence of the U.S. bases, fueled by the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. soldiers in September 1995. Following a 1996 basic agreement between Japan and the U.S., a plan was announced in 2002 to build a 2,500-meter-long heliport off Cape Henoko, near the place where Camp Schwab is located. But the plan stalled due to opposition from anti-base residents and environmentalists who campaigned to save dugongs living in the planned sea area. A crash of a Futenma-based helicopter in August 2004 on the campus of a nearby university prompted new relocation negotiations.

The U.S. preferred an offshore site to avoid flights over residential areas, but it agreed to an eventual Japanese proposal to build a heliport partly on land where Camp Schwab’s barracks now stand and partly offshore in Oura Bay, accepting Japan’s offer to lengthen the heliport from the original 1,500 meters to 1,800 meters. The lengthened heliport reportedly can accommodate Osprey tilt-rotor tactical transports and carrier-based aircraft.

As expected, Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine protested the plan’s failure to relocate the air base outside Okinawa Prefecture. However, the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Forces at Camp Courtney in Uruma, Okinawa, will be moved to Guam, reducing the number of marines in the island prefecture by 7,000 (about 18,000 U.S. marines are now stationed in Okinawa). Furthermore, KC-130 air tankers from Futenma Air Station will move to the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture, and training missions for F-15 fighter jets stationed at Kadena Air Base will be held at some bases on mainland Japan. To reduce noise problems from night-landing practice, aircraft aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk will use the Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture instead of the Atsugi Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The core of the plan jointly announced by Japan and the U.S., however, is a move toward closer cooperation in case of an emergency between the U.S. forces and the SDF. The U.S. Army will move a UEx, a new command known as a “unit of employment,” from 1st Corps in Washington State to Camp Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, apparently with a contingency on the Korean Peninsula in mind, and the Ground Self-Defense Force will move its rapid reaction force command to Zama as well to enhance Japan-U.S. joint command capabilities. The Air Self-Defense Force will move its Air Defense Command from Fuchu, Tokyo, to Yokota Air Base, also in Tokyo, to enhance missile-defense cooperation with the U.S. Japan will also introduce advanced radar for missile defense and a large, high-speed transport ship for rapid force deployment.

It must not be forgotten that the strengthening of military cooperation between the two countries may be a cause of concern for certain countries in the region and possibly raise political tensions. Some neighboring countries may also fear that Japan and the U.S. are strengthening their military cooperation to seek dominance in the region, or believe that Japan is becoming too closely incorporated into Washington’s military strategy. It is important that Japan pursue cautious, mature diplomacy aimed at fostering mutual trust with its neighbors.

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