A US-Japan Working Group on Marines At Okinawa That Seems to Be In the Eye of the Beholder

By Lindsey Ellerson

Nov 13, 2009 5:56pm

Early this week in Singapore, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reached an agreement on creating a bilateral working group to resolve issues surrounding the 2006 agreement reached between the US and Japan on the US moving a military base on Okinawa.

Thursday in Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and President Obama reaffirmed the existence of that working group.

But what the working group means — and what its goals are — seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Many Japanese think the 2006 agreement, which will relocate some Marines from a populated area and move others to Guam, does not go far enough. Over the weekend, 21,000 Japanese protested at Ginowan City in Okinawa, calling for all US forces to leave the island.

The Japanese government — under that heavy domestic pressure — has suggested publicly that the working group might be a way to re-open the 2006 agreement and get the US to agree to move more US troops off Okinawa.

But Obama administration officials insisted that the working group does not represent a concession to Japan or a willingness to re-open the 2006 agreement.

"The President recognizes that our Japanese ally wants to make sure that our vital security needs of our alliance are coupled with respect for the concerns of the local population," a senior administration official told ABC News.

More than half of the roughly 47,000 US troops on Japan are located at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the island of Okinawa.

For years locals have protested the presence of US troops there. Notorious incidents such as the September 4, 1995, rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by a US sailor and two US Marines, and a 2004 Marine helicopter crash on a university campus, have lent fuel to the fire.

In 2006, after years of negotiation, the U.S. and Japan agreed to close Futenma and move its facilities to another Marine base in a more remote part of Okinawa, and to relocate 8,000 marines to Guam.

For many Okinawans, that wasn't enough. And new Prime Minister Hatoyama was elected August partly by promising to review that agreement.

In an attempt to ensure that the issue didn't cloud President Obama's first visit to Japan as president, US Ambassador to Japan John Roos worked with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to establish and announce the working group, which will include Okada, Clinton, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Ben Rhodes, a member of the National Security Council, told ABC News that the working group "is not focused on revisiting the original agreement it is focused on the implementation of the agreement."

But the Japanese seem to want more.

Okada told reporters earlier this week that he "explained to (Clinton) the history of Okinawa, that it was once an independent country and that during World War Two about 100,000 civilians lost their lives. So when Prime Minister Hatoyama said he wants to take into consideration the feelings of the Okinawa people, this is the background in which he's making the comments.”

At his joint appearance with President Obama Thursday, Hatoyama said, "During the election campaign, especially to the Okinawans, I've stated that we would consider relocation outside of Okinawa and outside of the country.  It is a fact that we did campaign on this issue, and the Okinawans do have high expectations. It will be a very difficult issue for sure, but as time goes by, I think it will become even more difficult to resolve the issue.  Especially the residents in the Futenma district will find it even more difficult to resolve the issue as time goes by. So we do understand we need to resolve the issue as soon as possible, and we'll make every effort to resolve the issue as quickly as possible within the working group."

President Obama said the "United States and Japan have set up a high-level working group that will focus on implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached with respect to the restructuring of U.S. forces in Okinawa, and we hope to complete this work expeditiously. Our goal remains the same, and that's to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share this space."

Those reading diplomatic tea-leaves might see something different in the creation of the working group from the tone taken by Defense Secretary Gates last month in Japan when he said re-opening the "complex agreement, negotiated over a period of many years" would be "immensely complicated and counterproductive."

"We are very sympathetic to the desire of the new government in Japan to review the realignment road map," Gates said. That said, he argued that "Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa. Our view is this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on."

Gates said "we have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe that they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable."


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