The United States and Japan agreed Saturday to step up military cooperation and substantially reduce the number of Marines on the strategically important southern island of Okinawa.
The agreement calls for the phased withdrawal of 7,000 Marines from Okinawa to the Pacific island of Guam, a move that is expected to take six years.
There are 14,460 Marines in Japan, the largest Marine contingent based overseas. Nearly all are located on Okinawa, ideally situated for dealing with potential problems in the Pacific, such as a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Okinawans have long complained of crime, crowding and noise associated with the Marine bases.
‘A fresh start’
The agreement came after talks involving U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono and Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.
Rumsfeld said at a joint news conference at the Defense Department the United States and Japan "agreed to findings and recommendations to strengthen the alliance and reduce the impact of the U.S. military on local communities."
Ono said the agreement represented a "transformation of the alliance" that will provide it with "a fresh start and new energy."
The 14-page agreement said the measures Japan and the United States agreed on are "designed to enhance the alliance's capability to meet new threats and diverse contingencies and, as a whole, will reduce burdens on local communities thereby strengthening security and ensuring the alliance remains the anchor of regional stability."
Change in Japan's defense plans
It says Japan will defend itself and respond to situations in areas surrounding Japan, including addressing new threats and diverse contingencies "such as ballistic missile attacks, attacks by guerrilla and special forces and invasion of remote islands."
At the same time, the accord reaffirms the role of U.S. forces in the defense of Japan, a mission they have carried out since the end of World War II.
The two sides said they will increase military planning and hold training exercises together. This is expected to become easier next year when Japanese forces adopt a joint command structure.
Under the agreement, the United States will share with Japan use of the Kadena air base, Camp Hansen and other U.S facilities and areas in Okinawa.
A senior defense official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because he helped negotiate the agreement, said the United States was prepared to discuss more troop movements from southern Okinawa to the northern part of the island.
Transfer to Guam
The agreement says the realignment of forces in Okinawa "will include the transfer of approximately 7,000 Marine officers and enlisted personnel plus dependents out of Okinawa" to Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory seven hours by plane west of Hawaii.
It said Japan, recognizing the strong desire of Okinawa residents for a rapid force reduction, will work with the U.S. government to examine what financial and other measures it can take to help facilitate the Marine movement to Guam.
Under an agreement reached earlier in the week, Japan and the United States decided to close the Futenma Marine Air Corps Station in the crowded southern part of Okinawa and move its functions to Camp Schwab in the north.
Both sides compromised on the major sticking point in the deal: construction of a heliport on reclaimed land off Okinawa, which Japanese environmentalists had argued would threaten a coral reef, according to Japanese media reports.
The U.S. agreed to build only part of the heliport on reclaimed land but managed to negotiate a longer runway than the Japanese had sought, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported.