Tokyo: Washington and Tokyo agreed Friday to keep a contentious US Marine base in the southern island of Okinawa, reaffirming the importance of their security alliance amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In a joint statement, the two allies agreed to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, in a less crowded, northern part of the island. The decision is broadly in line with a 2006 deal forged with the previous, conservative Tokyo government, but represents a broken campaign promise on the part of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Hatoyama came to office last September promising to create a "more equal" relationship with Washington and move the Marine base off the island, which hosts more than half the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan under a 50-year-old joint security pact.
But after months of searching and fruitless discussions with Washington and Okinawan officials, the prime minister acknowledged earlier this month that the base needed to stay in Okinawa.
The joint statement appeared to highlight rising tension surrounding the March sinking of a South Korean ship blamed on a North Korean torpedo. "Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance," it said.
Hatoyama`s decision, which he had pledged to deliver by the end of May, has angered tens of thousand of island residents who complain about base-related noise, pollution and crime, and want Futenma moved off the island entirely.
US military officials and security experts argued it is essential that Futenma remain on Okinawa because its helicopters and air assets support Marine infantry units based on the island. Moving the facility off the island could slow the Marines` coordination and response in times of emergency.
The decision had domestic political fallout, too, as Hatoyama dismissed Gender Equality Minister Mizuho Fukushima from his Cabinet for her refusal to accept the agreement.
Fukushima, who leads a smaller party that is part of the ruling coalition, has insisted that Futenma`s facilities be moved off the island. Her party, however, will not bolt the government.
"I couldn`t betray the Okinawans," she said. "I cannot be a part of an agreement that imposes a burden on Okinawans."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano will take her spot in the Cabinet, Japanese media reports said.
Under a 1960 security pact, American armed forces are allowed broad use of Japanese land and facilities. In return, the US is obliged to respond to attacks on Japan and protect the country under its nuclear umbrella.
The US and Japan "recognized that a robust forward presence of U.S. military forces in japan, including in Okinawa, provides the deterrence and capabilities necessary for the defense of Japan and for the maintenance of regional stability," said the statement, which was issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.
Reaffirming the 2006 deal comes as a relief for Washington. In a phone conversation with President Barack Obama Friday morning Japan time, Hatoyama said Obama "expressed appreciation that the two countries could reach an agreement."
The White House also said Obama and Hatoyama pledged to work closely with South Korea in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan. North Korea has denied responsibility and has warned that any retaliation would mean war.
The Futenma move is part of a broader plan to reorganize American troops in Japan that includes moving 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014. But US officials had said that the other pieces cannot move forward until the Futenma issue was resolved.
The two countries said an environmental impact assessment and construction of the replacement facility should proceed "without significant delay." The statement called for a logistical study to be completed by the end of August.
The base, whose plans call for a 1,800-meter (5,900-feet) runway built partly on reclaimed land off the coast of Henoko, faces intense opposition from residents and environmentalists.
They said they would consider moving military training facilities off of Okinawa, possibly to nearby Tokunoshima, or out of Japan completely. The accord called for more environmental stewardship, through which US bases in Japan might incorporate renewable energy technology.
The governments still had lots of work to do, said Financial Affairs Minister Shizuka Kamei.
"The safety and noise reduction issues have not been resolved yet," he said.
The joint statement called for sensitivity to Okinawans` concerns.
"The Ministers recognized the importance of responding to the concerns of the people of Okinawa that they bear a disproportionate burden related to the presence of US forces, and also recognized that the more equitable distribution of shared alliance responsibilities is essential for sustainable development of the alliance," they said.