The United States and Japan have announced a revised agreement on the US military presence on Okinawa that will shift thousands of US soldiers from the southern Japanese island to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.
Thursday’s plan, unveiled just days before Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s prime minister, visits US President Barack Obama, helps the allies work around the still unresolved dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site.
Under the agreement, 9,000 American soldiers will relocate off Okinawa: 5,000 to Guam and the rest to other locations such as Hawaii and Australia, US officials said.
The updated version of a long-delayed 2006 plan “outlines an improved US Marine Corps force posture in the Asia-Pacific, one that is more capable and one that is more geographically distributed”, a senior US defence department official said.
“This presence is integral to our larger strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.”
A senior state department official said the policy had also entailed closer US military ties with The Philippines, Australia and Singapore.
The agreement includes a $3.1bn cash commitment from Japan for the move to Guam as well as for developing joint training ranges on Guam and on Tinian and Pagan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the deal was discussed widely with US legislators, who had refused to fund the overhaul on Okinawa until the Futenma deadlock was resolved and the administration fully explained how the move would fit overall US strategy.
“We think it breaks a very long stalemate … that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems,” said Campbell.
Al Jazeera’s Asia-Pacific correspondent Harry Fawcett said that the new agreement might make room for a new Futenma agreement.
“There is a feeling that with this larger contingent of marines moving away from the island, it will be easier for them to relocate Futenma within Okinawa,” he said.
But proposed replacement sites for Futenma on the subtropical island that lies between Japan’s main islands and Taiwan have met strong local opposition, as the airbase is in the middle of a residential area, where locals are especially unhappy with military-generated pollution.
Okinawa, occupied by the US from 1945-72, accounts for less than one per cent of Japan’s total land, but hosts three-quarters of the US military facilities in the country in terms of land area.
“This has been… bogged down for years, but now, we have been able to come up with a new approach delinking the Futenma relocation from other elements, like moving out Marine forces to Guam and returning some parts of Okinawa,” Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the US, said in Washington DC.
“Things are going to start moving.”
There are about 47,000 US troops in Japan under a 1960 bilateral security treaty.
Snags over Okinawa had raised questions about the viability of the Obama administration strategy of shifting US forces from other regions to the Asia-Pacific to deal with nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea, the rapid military build-up of China and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
A 1995 gang-rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by US troops led to widespread protests by Okinawans, who had long resented the American presence due to crime, noise and deadly accidents.