WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Japan said Tuesday they would press ahead with the costly relocation a U.S. Marine air station in Japan but pushed back the deadline amid opposition to the plans in both countries.
The delay in the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa had been widely anticipated. Japan's government has failed to win the requisite assent of residents there, although the plans aim to reduce the U.S. military footprint on the island that hosts more than half of the 47,000 American troops in Japan.
A joint statement said the relocation would be completed at the "earliest possible date" after 2014, the original deadline.
The announcement was made after security talks between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa that also touched on North Korea's nuclear program, Afghanistan and the sharing of missile defense technology.
The meeting reaffirmed the close ties between staunch allies but also highlighted an issue that complicated their relationship.
Kitazawa described opinions on Okinawa over the air station relocation as "very harsh." He told a joint news conference the Japanese government would make its best efforts to gain the understanding of the Okinawa governor and residents, many of whom resent the presence of U.S. forces because of pollution, noise and crime associated with military bases.
Gates urged Japan to move quickly.
Referring to the demands of an influential group of U.S. senators who have moved to freeze U.S. funding for the relocation, Gates said that reflected "impatience with the lack of progress." He said he had emphasized to Japan the importance of concrete progress over the next year.
The two sides confirmed plans, spelled out in 2006 agreement, for Marine air operations to be shifted to a less crowded part of Okinawa, where a new airfield would be built. Some 8,000 Marines would also be shifted to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. They also confirmed their commitment to fund it. Japan is to foot much of the multibillion-dollar bill.
Japan, the world's third largest economy, faces its own financial burdens after years of malaise and then the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country's northern coastline and left about 23,000 people dead or missing. Damage is estimated at $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.
That disaster, however, also underscored the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, as the American military mounted a massive humanitarian assistance campaign that was well received in Japan.
Kitazawa said that in the aftermath of the earthquake, the significance of stationing U.S. forces in Japan, including on Okinawa, was understood by the Japanese people and brought them a "greater sense of security."
Clinton said the alliance remains indispensable to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. "We are cooperating more closely on a wider range of issues and challenges than ever before," she told the news conference.
The two sides urged China, which has a history of tense relations with Japan, to play a "responsible and constructive role in regional stability" and to be more open about its military modernization. They also sought to promote ties between the U.S. and Japan with India — a growing regional power that also eyes China's rise with some caution.
Japan agreed to a U.S. request to share with allies the SM-3 Block IIA, a ship-based missile defense system jointly developed by the two countries, in cases where it would contribute to Japan's national security or international peace and stability.
Japan's Foreign Ministry press secretary Satoru Satoh said this was an exception to Japan's strict policy on barring exports of weapons, and was agreed to principally for security reasons, but also to manage the costs of joint research.