Washington: The United States has said that it needs to maintain a base on the Japanese island of Okinawa to defend the region, as the new government in Tokyo considers scrapping a previous plan.
Senior US officials told Congress that while they respected the decisions of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama`s six-month-old government, they hoped to go ahead with a plan to move the Futenma air base within Okinawa.
Michael Schiffer, a senior Pentagon official, told a congressional panel that troops in Okinawa were the only ground forces "between Hawaii and India" which the United States could quickly deploy.
"Futenma may be but one base and one part of a larger alliance relationship, but peace and stability in the region depend in no small part on the enduring presence of forward deployed US forces in Japan," said Schiffer, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asia.
"The United States cannot meet its treaty obligations to defend Japan, cannot respond to humanitarian crises or natural disasters, cannot meet its commitments for regional peace and stability without forward deployed ground forces in Japan," he said.
He said the Futenma move was a "lynchpin" of a 2006 deal under which more than 8,000 US troops would leave Okinawa for the US territory of Guam.
Under the agreement, Futenma would move from the crowded urban hub of Ginowan to a quiet village.
Schiffer and Joseph Donovan, his counterpart at the State Department, both testified that the deal was the best solution to limit the impact on Okinawa while maintaining troops in the region.
But some of Hatoyama`s left-leaning allies want the base moved entirely out of Japan, blaming the troops for noise and crime.
Despite President Barack Obama`s support for the 2006 deal, several lawmakers from his Democratic Party have voiced sympathy for Okinawans` grievances.
Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, pointed out that Okinawa accounts for one percent of Japan`s land but two-thirds of US bases deployed there.
"The Okinawans feel like they`re always being the whipping boy for the last 50 years. We just put our military people there and don`t have to worry about it," Faleomavaega said.
But Republican Representative Ed Royce of California said that the Hatoyama government had "badly handled" the Futenma issue.
"The alliance has been a force for stability in a very tough neighbourhood but there is cause for concern," Royce said.
"Japan`s government is inexperienced. Some Japanese leaders would like to see Tokyo tilt more towards Beijing," he said.
Hatoyama has called for a more equal relationship between Tokyo and Washington and suggested creating an East Asian regional network without the United States, which stations 47,000 troops in Japan under a security treaty.
Ichiro Ozawa, the backroom powerbroker of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, in December took hundreds of lawmakers to visit Beijing, sending the United States scrambling to invite more Japanese MPs to Washington.
But most US analysts are doubtful about a wider shift toward Beijing, noting that Japan has deep-rooted historical tensions with China and longstanding concerns about the giant neighbour’s soaring military budget.