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Japan, U.S. may transfer Marines from Futenma Air Station ahead of base relocation

The Yomiuri Shimbun –

TOKYO — Japan and the United States are discussing the transfer of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture out of the country ahead of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, government sources said.

The move comes as part of a review of a 2006 bilateral agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in the country. Under the accord, the transfer of the Marines to Guam and the relocation of the Futenma station were supposed to be handled together.

Senior officials of the foreign and defense ministries of the two countries will meet in Washington on Monday to start full-fledged negotiations on a new realignment plan, according to the sources.

The review of the 2006 accord was proposed by the United States in mid-January, the sources said.

Washington apparently took the step in line with its review of the country’s defense strategy, announced on Jan. 5, which is aimed at drastically reducing its defense spending.

The two governments plan to keep the number of U.S. Marines to be transferred at 8,000, in line with the 2006 accord.

However, instead of moving all the Marines to Guam, the two countries are considering temporarily stationing some of them in Australia, Hawaii and elsewhere.

As for Futenma Air Station, Japan and the United States still want to relocate the facility from the congested city of Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago in the prefecture, according to the sources.

“We’ve adopted a flexible stance in negotiations with the United States on ways to move forward on both the relocation of Futenma Air Station and the transfer of U.S. Marines to ease the burden on Okinawa Prefecture at an early date while maintaining a deterrence,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters Friday night.

This statement suggests the transfer of Marines might precede the relocation of the Futenma Air Station and the scale of Marines to be redeployed to Guam could be reviewed.

Along with the relocation of the Futenma facility, the transfer of Marines from Okinawa Prefecture to Guam is considered a pillar of the realignment of U.S. forces in this country.

The review of the 2006 Japan-U.S. accord could influence the scheduled return of six U.S. military installations in southern Okinawa Prefecture, a plan incorporated in the agreement.

The U.S. government is expediting efforts to transfer Marines to Guam, even if the plan has to be separated from Futenma’s relocation, apparently to counter China’s efforts to boost its military presence in the western Pacific, observers said.

Tokyo has agreed to shoulder $6.09 billion of the amount needed to transfer the Marines to Guam. This includes a maximum of $2.8 billion in financial assistance, which the government plans to review, according to the sources.

Although the redeployment of the Marines will help reduce Okinawa Prefecture’s burden in hosting U.S. forces, some observers warn that treating the transfer separately could mean Futenma Air Station will remain permanently at the current location.

This, they say, is because the momentum for relocating Futenma would fall if the Marines transfer is handled separately.

The Japanese and U.S. governments aim to reach an agreement on the review of the realignment plan at a summit meeting expected to be held in spring, the sources said.

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