Japan and US agree Okinawa troop withdrawal


TOKYO AND Washington have finally reached a deal under which about half the US troops controversially stationed on the island of Okinawa, will be withdrawn, amid a major realignment of American military forces in the Pacific.

The agreement means that 9,000 marines will relocate, leaving about 9,000 to 10,000 stationed on Okinawa. Most of the marines will go to Australia, Hawaii and the Pacific island of Guam, home to about three dozen military installations and 14,000 troops.

Okinawans have long demanded a reduction of the heavy local US military presence. Two years ago, more than 90,000 protested to demand the removal of an American airbase, helping to topple then Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama from power.

Washington agreed to slash the number of troops in a 2006 agreement that committed Tokyo to finding an alternative location for the Futenma air base, which squats in the middle of a crowded city. However, local opposition to building its replacement off a pristine coastal village in northern Okinawa forced both governments to decouple the plan.

The wording of yesterday’s agreement insists that the replacement base “remains the only viable solution that has been identified to date,” but many experts believe the plan is not workable.

Japan was eager to complete the agreement, which capped years of difficult negotiations, ahead of a Washington meeting between prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and US president Barack Obama next week.

Announcing the deployment of marines in Australia, Mr Obama last year said the US was shifting its military focus away from the Middle East and towards the Pacific region, as part of what his administration calls “America’s Pacific Century”.

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton also said that the US must “pursue a more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture” in the region.

The Asia-Pacific’s “remarkable economic growth . . . and potential for continued growth . . . depend on the security and stability that has long been guaranteed by the US military,” she said.

Japan will pay almost a third of the $8.6 billion (€6.5 billion) cost of moving the marines to Guam. The deal also means that the US government will begin returning land confiscated decades ago for military bases.

The Americans have been on Okinawa since invading in 1945, mounting an attack that wiped out close to a third of the local population and left 50,000 US troops killed or injured. In 1972, the islands reverted to Japanese rule but most of the bases stayed.

The bases already occupy a fifth of the main island and include Kadena, the biggest and most active US Air Force base in east Asia, and Futenma, which occupies 25 per cent of Ginowan city.