Tokyo: A major US Marine base set for relocation must stay on the southern Japan island of Okinawa, the country's Foreign Minister said on Friday as he tried to ease a deepening rift with Washington.
Katsuya Okada said the Marine airfield in Futenma, a crowded city on Okinawa, should be relocated to another part of the island and not moved elsewhere in Japan or overseas as some of his party's leadership had suggested.
The relocation of the base, which had already been agreed to under previous conservative administrations in Tokyo, had become a sticky issue between Washington and Japan's newly elected government because of local opposition to the move.
"Starting from scratch on other ideas would not serve the best interests of the people of Okinawa," Okada said. "We should not spend too much time on this. Our time is limited."
He said, however, that it will be difficult to resolve the issue in time for President Barack Obama's November 12-13 visit to Japan.
After more than a decade of negotiations, US and Japanese officials agreed three years ago to shift 8,000 Marines on Okinawa to the US territory of Guam by 2014. But the plan, which includes the relocation of the Futenma airfield, has met intense local resistance.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who assumed office last month and vowed to put Japan's relations with Washington on a more equal footing, had said he wants to review the plan and had been unclear whether he would support moving the airfield elsewhere on Okinawa.
On Friday, he said that a resolution should be made "sooner than later," but did not elaborate.
Okada's statement Friday was the new government's clearest to date that it will accept the move of the base to another location on Okinawa.
While the existing plan would lighten Okinawa's share of hosting more than half of the US troops in Japan, it has met with resistance from opponents who expressed reservations over base-related crime, the cost and environmental issues.
Such opposition has stalled efforts to settle on a final plan for where the base should be relocated, although the Camp Schwab area, which is in a less crowded part of Okinawa, remains the most likely candidate.
First Published: Friday, October 23, 2009, 17:37