Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The governor of a Japanese island crucial to America's forward military presence in Asia urged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the weekend to reduce the number of troops, but Rumsfeld, in turn, gave the governor a clear reminder why the troops are there.
Faced with a seven-point petition outlining Okinawa governor Keiishi Inamine's complaints, Rumsfeld made a point of his own.
"You mentioned things that have occurred over the period of the U.S. presence on bases here," the defense secretary said during a meeting with Inamine in the Okinawa capital, Naha.
"One other thing has occurred of considerable import," Rumsfeld added, "and that is over the decades of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, this part of the world has seen peace."
The island of 1.34 million people lies south of Japan's main islands, strategically located in relation to both the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.
Of 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, just over 28,000 of them, including more than 17,000 U.S. Marines, are on Okinawa.
Their presence has long been a sensitive issue, and with the first visit by an American defense chief in 13 years, the governor seized the opportunity to make the grievances public.
Speaking during a meeting that he pointedly opened to the media, Inamine told Rumsfeld the military presence had become an economic and social impediment.
He called for a reduction of U.S. bases, relocation of Marine training exercises to sites outside of Okinawa, a "fundamental review" of the Status of Forces agreement governing the legal status of personnel, and the prevention of "incidents and accidents" associated with military activities and personnel.
He also appealed for steps to reduce aircraft noise, and for a ban on the use of low-frequency sonar for underwater detection, which is alleged to be dangerous to underwater mammals.
Rumsfeld heard Inamine out, but said he was not in a position to make any specific proposals about reductions, saying a review of U.S. forces' locations worldwide was at a "middle stage."
A reassessment of the deployment of U.S. forces around the globe is a key element of Rumsfeld's visit to East Asia.
Rumsfeld, whom a Kyodo news agency report described as "visibly angered" by the governor's blunt message, took issue over some of the points raised.
He said he understood noise levels and the level of Marine training had declined rather than increased, saying "there has been a great deal of effort on the part of our forces ... to minimize the impact" on local communities.
Rumsfeld also said scientific studies showed thus far that low-frequency radar had "little, if any, impact on marine mammals."
During his visit, Rumsfeld toured U.S. installations, and thanked troops for their service and their "willingness to help defend freedom."
Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Marine base at Camp Foster, to protest the U.S. presence on the island and U.S. policy in Iraq.
Okinawa was the scene of 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.
Although comprising a tiny part of Japan - Okinawa is about one-third of the size of Rhode Island - it is home to more U.S. troops than the rest of the country put together.
Much of the opposition to the military presence has been linked to crimes committed by service personnel, most obviously so in the case of the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three Marines.
Traffic accidents involving U.S. personnel and dependants are also a sore point, as is noise pollution.
But the military argues that it does work hard to foster good relations with the local population and to clamp down on wrongdoing.
Marine 1st Lt. Albert Eskalis, public affairs officer for III Marine Expeditionary Force, said Monday the majority of the 17,500 Marines and sailors attached to the force were "serving as outstanding ambassadors throughout the Western Pacific."
Last year, they had taken part in an average of 85 community relations events each month, or more than 1,000 throughout the year, he said.
Among these, service personnel are placed in local schools to help teach conversational English to elementary school children, and units participate in an annual, island-wide beach cleanup. Funds raised by thrift shops run by military spouses have benefited Okinawa charities to the tune of more than $2 million over the past decade.
"Our efforts to be contributing members of the community are robust, " Eskalis said. "We are reaching out and will continue to reach out to our Japanese neighbors who host our bases."
Efforts to reduce the impact of training exercises on locals included restricting flying hours, flying at higher altitudes to reduce noise, and re-routing flight paths to minimize flights over land and populated areas.
Special holidays were observed and exam schedules of local schools were taken into account. Much of the training was being conducted outside of Japan, he added.
On the question of conduct, Eskalis said a sustained campaign in recent years, including restrictions on conduct, appearance and driving privileges while on liberty, had helped to reduce the number of "incidents and accidents" significantly.
"The rules and regulations imposed on Marines are stricter in Okinawa than anywhere else in the Marine Corps."
Eskalis said the Marines' presence was important both for the defense of Japan and in the event of any regional contingency.
"The presence of a deployable, well-trained force at this strategic location on Okinawa serves as a general deterrent to regional aggression," he said.
"We constantly strive to be great allies, and just as importantly, we strive to be contributing members of the local communities in which we live."
Okinawa's local economy also clearly benefits from the presence of the personnel and their families.
According to the U.S. Consulate-General in Naha, the island has the lowest per capita income in Japan, and an unemployment level double that of the rest of the country.
See earlier story:
Rumsfeld Visits Asia to Discuss Adjustments to US Forces (Nov. 14, 2003)
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