Japan and the United States reached a deal Wednesday to consolidate U.S. Marine airborne operations on Okinawa, resolving one of the thorniest issues of their strategic alliance and laying the groundwork for a broader realignment of more than 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on Japanese soil.
The plan calls for relocating operations from the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma -- located near a densely populated civilian area of Okinawa -- to another U.S. base on the island, officials from both countries said.
"There was a sense of emergency that not reaching agreement on the issue, a central part of the U.S.-Japan relationship, would seriously damage relations," Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.
Despite the accord, U.S. dismay at the pace of the talks was evident. The head of the U.S. delegation, Richard Lawless, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian & Pacific affairs, suggested Tuesday that the difficulties over such issues as Futenma had delayed a broader reshaping of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The United States has come to view the alliance as a cornerstone of regional security as China assumes a more assertive stance and North Korea is presumed to have become a nuclear-armed threat.
"We have to realize that we no longer have the luxury of interminable dialogue over parochial issues," said Lawless, speaking at a Tokyo conference sponsored by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
"If we are to bring the alliance to where it needs to be in the 21st century," Lawless said, "then we need to dramatically accelerate, across the board, to make up for the time lost to indecision, indifference and procrastination."
The initial decision to relocate the air station was made in 1996, but negotiations were drawn out because of protests to the U.S. presence, heightened by the 1995 rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.
The countries are also considering a greater role for U.S. troops stationed in Japan to respond to hot spots throughout the Asia-Pacific region as well as an increased integration of Japanese and American forces. U.S. officials have been pushing Japan to take on a greater role in the alliance by bolstering its defense capability.
The compromise announced Wednesday was reached after U.S. officials dropped their demands for a new offshore facility in Okinawa to replace the Futenma airstrip. It would have been constructed on some of the last pristine coral reefs in the area, which drew fire from environmentalists. Japan, on the other hand, insisted on consolidating the operations at the existing U.S. Marine base, Camp Schwab, also on Okinawa. While American negotiators had long argued that there was not enough space at Camp Schwab, the compromise calls for adding reclaimed land off the base's shoreline.
The Futenma issue was so divisive that many here said it played into the decision by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to skip Japan on his recent three-nation tour of Asia. Lawless headed the U.S. delegation instead, extending his stay to complete the agreement before a meeting in Washington this weekend between Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their Japanese counterparts on broader strategic issues, including troop realignment. Officials were also brushing up against another, more important deadline, President Bush's visit to Japan in mid-November.
The agreement has been hailed as a breakthrough, but many details have yet to be worked out. Particularly complicated is the question of where more than 3,000 Marines at Futenma will ultimately be relocated.
Machimura said that "thousands" of U.S. troops would be moved away from Okinawa. The U.S. government, however, has not yet said where and when those troops might go and has not dismissed stationing them elsewhere in Japan. Japanese diplomats have suggested such a move would be politically untenable given local opposition, saying the U.S. forces should be moved to Guam or the United States.