Correction: Earlier versions of this article about the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air base in Okinawa incorrectly said that half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan are stationed at the base. Half of the U.S. troops in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, but they are spread around the island. This version has been updated.
The United States and Japan said Tuesday that they would stick to a plan to relocate a Marine Corps base on Okinawa but would delay the move because of financial and political hurdles.
The Futenma air base has long been an irritant in the U.S.-Japan relationship. Leaders on both sides view it as an essential deterrent in the region, especially in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive Chinese military. But many on the Japanese island resent having an American base in a crowded urban area and question whether Futenma is still needed.
The decision to delay the base relocation from its 2014 deadline was announced after a meeting in Washington involving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and their counterparts from Japan. At a news conference afterward, the participants said they discussed the base, as well as North Korea’s nuclear program, the fighting in Afghanistan and plans to share missile technology.
Both sides affirmed their support for moving Futenma, but the timeline was left uncertain. In a joint statement, officials described the new deadline as “the earliest possible date after 2014.”
Okinawa residents have long viewed the base as a source of crime, danger and noise. In 1995, three U.S. servicemen raped an Okinawa schoolgirl. And in 2004, a Marine Corps helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University.
Half of the 47,000 U.S. troops based in Japan are stationed in Okinawa. Under the plan negotiated in 2006, the United States agreed to move Futenma to an isolated coastal site, and 8,000 U.S. troops would be moved to Guam.
But for some Japanese, that plan didn’t go far enough. Frustration over the issue was among the main issues that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama last year.
“Opinions in Okinawa are very harsh,“ Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said. The price tag is also daunting for Japan, which is trying to rebuild its economy after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March. The cost for the relocation has soared since the original 2006 agreement to $29.1 billion, from $10.3 billion. Japan would be responsible for $15.9 billion under the original terms, and the United States for the balance.
A group of U.S. senators has called for the United States to review the relocation plan in the face of political opposition and cost overruns. And last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee moved to bar funds for the relocation plans.
The moves reflect “growing congressional impatience with the process,” Gates said at Tuesday’s news conference. He urged Japan to make progress on the plan even if the 2014 deadline is pushed back.
Japanese officials said one silver lining amid the earthquake was the quick U.S. military aid response. “In the aftermath of the earthquake, the understanding of the significance of the stationing of U.S. forces in Japan, including the Marine Corps in Okinawa, I believe, has been understood,” Kitazawa said.
According to State Department officials, China loomed large in the U.S.-Japan talks Tuesday, as did cooperation with South Korea and India, two other countries carefully eyeing China’s ascent. “There was a strong sense that working together, U.S. and Japan could encourage China to follow a more collaborative path . . . to be more transparent,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.