US, Japan to delay base plan: officials

WASHINGTON — Japan and the United States will delay plans to shift a military base in Okinawa during top-level talks Tuesday, officials said, as pressure builds for a new solution to the long-running rift.

By (AFP)

Published: Tue 21 Jun 2011, 2:38 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 10:38 PM

President Barack Obama’s administration had hoped that Japan’s massive March earthquake would turn the page on years of dispute on US troop levels. But US senators have pressed for a rethink, calling plans infeasible.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, one of two Japanese officials in the talks that involve US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said it was difficult to complete the base plan by the 2014 goal.

‘There is no point in dragging out something that cannot be done just because we agreed to do it before. What we are saying is let’s deal with this realistically,’ Kitazawa told The New York Times before departure in Tokyo.

A US official, speaking to reporters in Washington on condition of anonymity, said the meeting would result in ‘a readjustment of the timeline’ to one that is ‘more realistic.’

‘It does not take a math prodigy to look at the calendar, look at the original timelines that were laid out, look at the progress that has been made and make a determination about what can and can’t be completed between now and 2014,’ the official said.

Sealed in 2006 after exhaustive negotiations, the realignment plan calls for the closing of the Futenma air base which lies in a crowded urban area of subtropical Okinawa island and has long been a source of grievance.

The plan, signed under the right-leaning administrations of George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi, would build a replacement base on an isolated part of Okinawa with some 8,000 Marines leaving by 2014 for the US territory of Guam.

Some Okinawan activists demanded that the base be removed entirely from Okinawa, which bears half of the 47,000-strong US military presence in Japan.

One prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned last year after failing to fulfill campaign promises to renegotiate Futenma, with the Obama administration insisting to him that the crux of the deal was not open to debate.

The Obama administration official said the stance remained unchanged, despite the proposals of the senators.

‘We very much understand the frustration that they feel and they raise a number of very legitimate questions. But from our perspective, we remain committed to the current plan to maintain a forward presence in the region,’ he said.

Weston Konishi, a Japan expert at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said the Obama administration was loath to restart negotiations on Okinawa after seeing the years of intense talks that produced the 2006 plan.

‘I think they’re going to try to push forward with that. But the senators in many ways undermined the Obama administration’s efforts as they certainly knocked back some of the momentum toward the 2006 plan,’ Konishi said.

Under an alternative drafted by Senator Jim Webb, a former combat Marine with experience in Asia, Futenma would be closed and its air assets largely shifted to Okinawa’s existing Kadena Air Base.

Webb, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party from Virginia, also proposed shifting some of the existing air assets from Kadena to elsewhere in Japan and Guam, a solution he said would ease both congestion and costs in Okinawa.

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week agreed to cut off funding for the 2014 shift until the Marine Corps comes up with a new study on Guam — where opposition is also building — and considers the alternative on Futenma.

US officials said the talks between the United States and Japan would touch on a wide array of issues, including stalled efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

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