Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A panel chartered by Congress to advise on redeployments of U.S. forces abroad is questioning the wisdom of reducing the number of troops on Japan's Okinawa island at a time of strategic uncertainties in the region.
In a report released Monday, the Overseas Basing Commission recommended that U.S. Marines at one Okinawan base, the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, should be moved -- either to another U.S. base on the island, or to one located on Honshu, Japan's main island.
Apart from Futenma, however, all other Marine Corps assets on Okinawa should remain there.
"Okinawa is the strategic linchpin to operational capabilities in East Asia," the commission said. "Diminishing our combat capability on the island would pose great risk to our national interests in the region."
U.S.-Japanese security relations are being enhanced and strengthened as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi edges his country away from its strictly pacifist constitution and takes on a larger role in the region, where strategic concerns include the China-Taiwan dispute and North Korea's nuclear programs.
At the same time, however, Okinawa remains a sensitive issue in U.S.-Japan relations. More than half of the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan are stationed on the strategically-located island of 1.3 million people, and U.S. bases cover about 20 percent of its area.
Local opposition to the U.S. presence has been fueled over the years by crimes committed by military personnel, accidents -- including the crash of a Marine helicopter last August -- and noise pollution.
To ease the pressure on the community, Tokyo is keen for some troops on Okinawa to be moved to bases outside Japan, such as on Guam, and some to bases elsewhere in Japan.
The U.S. agreed in 1996 to move the Futenma base within five to seven years, but alternatives have proven tricky. One proposal was to build an artificial offshore base nearby but the plan also drew protests, and has stalled.
In its recommendations on Okinawa the Overseas Basing Commission effectively ruled out both the offshore airbase idea and the proposal to relocate troops to bases like Guam, which is home to the Anderson Air Force Base as well as U.S. Navy facilities.
Okinawa is some 500 nautical miles from Taiwan, while Guam is about three times further away from the self-governing island, which China considers a province in rebellion and has threatened to use force if necessary to prevent a formal breakaway.
At a briefing responding to the release of the report, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy Ryan Henry said the Pentagon was having discussions with the Japanese on the best disposition of U.S. forces.
"Our final opinion will be based upon what we and our ally feel is best for the alliance and for regional stability in that area,"' he said.
The head of Japan's Defense Agency, Yoshinori Ono, responded cautiously to the commission report.
He said in Tokyo Tuesday the government's goal was to maintain American deterrent power while at the same time reducing the burden on communities living near the Okinawan bases.
Sixty years ago, Okinawa saw some of the deadliest fighting in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. More than 12,000 American and 100,000 Japanese soldiers were killed there in April-June 1945.
U.S. forces administered the island until it reverted to Japanese rule in 1972.
See related story:
Pentagon Rejects 'Slow Down' Calls on Closure of Bases Abroad (May 10, 2005)
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