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Sunday, July 23, 2000

Breakthrough unlikely on base time limit issue


Staff writer

NAHA, Okinawa -- Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and U.S. President Bill Clinton on Saturday touched on the controversial relocation of the U.S. Marines Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa but sidestepped the prefecture's demand for a 15-year limit on the U.S. use of the new facility -- the real sticking point.

As a result, it appears unlikely that a major breakthrough on the issue will be reached anytime soon, a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations said.

"The U.S. position on the [15-year] time limit is unchanged. We cannot and will not accept a limit that may hinder U.S. strategic objectives in the region," said the official, speaking anonymously.

"However, realistically, domestic pressures on the prime minister make it difficult to expect the kind of quick solution advocated by Mori and Clinton in the bilateral meetings. It appears more likely that this issue will continue to be put off, probably until after the U.S. elections in November," the official said.

Since his arrival in Okinawa, Clinton spoke on several occasions of the importance of the continued presence of the U.S. forces in the region. He also mentioned efforts being made to speed up compliance with the resolutions of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa that were made in December 1996.

SACO, formed in the wake of the 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen, listed 27 U.S. military facilities in Okinawa that should be returned. The most important, for both Japan and the U.S., is Futenma, the sprawling marine airport in Ginowan near the center of Okinawa Island.

The Japanese government proposed construction of an alternative facility -- a joint military-civil airport -- off the eastern shore of Nago.

Nago Mayor Tateo Kishi eventually accepted the proposal, but only on condition that the U.S. military's use of the new airfield be terminated in 15 years.

Since then, negotiations over the timing of the relocation have bogged down.

"There seems to be no doubt that Futenma will be the last major item on the SACO agreement to be fulfilled, and it appears likely the next U.S. president will have to deal with the issue," the U.S. official said.

U.S.-Japan defense experts say that if a Republican administration takes office under George W. Bush, there is a possibility of an earlier resolution of the Futenma issue. One of Bush's major foreign policy advisers is Richard Armitage, head of a Washington think tank and a proponent for further reductions of overseas U.S. military presence.

"By the time a new administration takes office, we should have a more clear idea of how serious (North Korean leader) Kim Il Jong is about a missile moratorium and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Positive changes would place greater pressure on both the U.S. and Japan to make more adjustments," the official said.



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