Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Panetta Presses Japan on U.S. Base Move

TOKYO - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Oct. 25 that it was critical for Japan to press ahead with the relocation of a controversial air base on a southern island to ensure the region's security.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his Japanese counterpart Yasuo Ichikawa answer questions during a joint press conference Oct. 25. (Toru Yamanaka / AFP via Getty Images)
In an effort to galvanize the stalled move amid public opposition, Japanese leaders pledged to issue an environmental impact report on shifting the Futenma Air Station from a residential area on Okinawa to a nearby coastal spot.
"The minister assured me... the government of Japan's intention to move forward with steps necessary with the Futenma replacement facility," Panetta said during a joint press conference with Japanese Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa.
"This is a critical initiative in our effort to maintain a strong, forward-deployment presence in the Pacific region," Panetta said.
A long-standing agreement between Washington and Tokyo was set to see the Futenma air base moved by 2014.
But local objections and a policy flip-flop by a former prime minister have stalled the plan, putting a distinct chill on relations between the long-time security allies.
The governor of the area in which the new base is expected to be built will still have the final say on whether to allow the construction of a new facility, regardless of the environmental report by the central government.
Okinawa has long been a reluctant host to around half of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Locals complain of noise, the risk of military accidents and of crimes committed by U.S. soldiers.
Panetta reiterated that the base realignment will come alongside the redeployment of about 8,000 U.S. service personnel from Okinawa to Guam.
"It is also important to reducing the impact of our bases in Okinawa," he said.
Meanwhile, Ichikawa and Panetta reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance as a "cornerstone" of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
The Pentagon chief, who also met with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, was in Japan on the second leg of a tour of Asian allies where he has repeatedly stressed Washington's commitment to remaining a Pacific power, as nations in the region nervously eye China's growing military might.
Panetta said Washington will jointly will work with Japan, South Korea and Australia to "effectively address many shared challenges" of living next to the communist country.
"Together, we will also work to encourage China's emergence as a responsible and positive partner in building regional stability and prosperity, cooperating on global issues, and upholding international norms and rules of behaviors," he said, without elaborating.
Panetta is scheduled to head to South Korea on Oct. 26.

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