Relocating a contentious US airbase from southern Japan to Guam is “unreasonable” from the standpoint of national security, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told a radio programme.
Hatoyama said it would not be practical to shift the whole base, which has been the subject of friction between Tokyo and Washington, from Okinawa to the US-controlled Pacific Ocean territory.
“Thinking realistically, it would be unreasonable to relocate all its functions to Guam from the standpoint of deterrence,” Hatoyama told a Nippon Radio programme Saturday.
The US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station currently sits in a crowded urban area of tropical Okinawa island. Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to move it out to a coastal region, away from the population, many of whom resent its presence.
The agreement was part of a broader realignment of US forces in Japan and includes the redeployment of around 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the US territory of Guam.
Soon after coming to power, Hatoyama’s centre-left government announced a review of the agreement, provoking irritation in Washington.
However, Hatoyama appeared to soft pedal the review in his weekend comments to the broadcaster.
“It’s been decided that 8,000 Marines and their families are to be moved to Guam. I expressed my idea that moving more than (8,000) is very difficult from the viewpoint of deterrence,” Hatoyama said Sunday before leaving for India, when asked by reporters about his Saturday comments.
Since its defeat in World War II, officially pacifist Japan has relied on a massive US military presence to guarantee its security, initially as an occupier and later as an ally.
But the dispute over Futenma has raised fears among some Japanese that this alliance might cool, at a time when a rising China is making its presence felt across Asia.
Hatoyama’s comments drew the ire of the Socialists in his ruling coalition, who favour shifting the base out of the country and have threatened to leave the coalition over the base row.
“The Socialist Party regards the relocation to Guam as the best plan. We will pursue this possibility with our utmost efforts,” said Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Socialists.
Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) needs votes from Socialists and another junior coalition partner for a majority in the upper house of parliament.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano is due Monday to chair a meeting with coalition partners on the base issue.
Referring to the Monday meeting, Hatoyama said “finding a new location for the Futenma base is important, but naturally, discussing deterrence is inevitable.”
Hatoyama’s government took power in Japan in August after half a century of almost continuous conservative rule, pledging to review past agreements on the US military presence and to deal with Washington on a more “equal” basis.
The United States, which defeated Japan in World War II and then occupied the country, now has 47,000 troops stationed there, more than half of them on Okinawa, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.