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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Alleged U.S. leak irks Defense Agency

Pentagon-sourced media salvo seen as first in realignment bidding war


Staff writer

A top Defense Agency official was furious after reading front-page stories on March 15 here about Japan's negotiations with the United States.

The stories apparently featured details from behind-the-scenes negotiations about the cost of realigning the U.S. forces in Okinawa. The cost estimates, he said, were leaked to the newspapers by an anonymous Pentagon official.

According to the articles, the cost of transferring 8,000 U.S. Marines and their families from Okinawa to a U.S. base in Guam will be a hefty $10 billion, with Tokyo expected to shoulder 75 percent of the burden.

"We won't buy their argument on their own ground," said the visibly irritated official. "If all the things America demands are done the way they say, you can't call that relationship a real (military) alliance," the official said, vowing to fight back.

Ten days later, Tokyo and Washington are still engaged in tough negotiations over the cost of moving the marines from Okinawa to Guam, testing the strength of the Japanese-U.S. military alliance as the U.S. tries to shift the deployment of its military throughout the world.

The Defense Agency official claimed the leak was actually an attempt to set the opening price for the next round of cost negotiations between Tokyo and Washington.

The agreement is supposed to be reached by the end of the month, and time is running out.

On Friday, a two-day preparatory talk by senior defense officials in Tokyo ended with the two sides far apart, clouding prospects for the self-imposed deadline being reached.

The negotiators will continue talking this week in Washington, and the negotiations are expected to be tough, government sources said.

Japan has pledged to shoulder the costs directly incurred by the transfer of 8,000 U.S. marines to Guam because it is Tokyo that requested their removal. But the U.S. has proposed in recent negotiations that the cost of building additional facilities in Guam also be covered by Japan. This, Japanese officials say, is the main focus of the bilateral bargaining.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Friday morning that the two sides were particularly divided over the costs of building housing in Guam for U.S. military personnel and their families, which could total around 17,000 people. "The cost that we claim and what the other side claims are quite different," Aso said.

Instead of paying money, Tokyo has proposed extending loans to the U.S. side -- an amount reportedly around $2.5 billion -- as one option for covering the cost of housing, according to Kyodo News.

Another core element overshadowing the talks is the fact that the Japanese government is struggling to persuade the city of Nago to agree to host an alternative air base for U.S. Marine Corp. Futenma Air Station.

The relocation of the air base, which is situated in the center of densely populated Futenma, has long been a thorny issue for Tokyo and Washington.

Antimilitary sentiment is particularly strong in Okinawa, which hosts 75 percent of all U.S. military bases in the country and where one in every four residents was killed in the fierce ground battle with the U.S. during the closing days of World War II.

Nago has refused to agree on the government's plan to build an air facility in an area covering part of Cape Henoko and adjacent waters, citing noise pollution and safety problems for residents living under the flight paths planned for U.S. military aircraft.

The city said it would agree to host the facility if the air facility is built farther offshore.

The U.S. side insists it won't hold a so-called "two-plus-two" defense talk (a meeting between Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga and their U.S. counterparts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) that Japan is hoping for unless the Japanese government secures an agreement from Nago.

But the Defense Agency says that even if an agreement is reached with Nago, it will not prevent environmentalists from staging protests on the open sea. It argues that going ahead with the current plan is the most practical course of action, even without the consent of Nago.

Protests by environmentalists have been successful at blocking previous plans for alternative air bases off Cape Henoko. But the area along the coast of the Cape Henoko and adjacent waters is restricted by a domestic law based on the Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. military forces of Japan. Sticking to the government's plan will prevent environmentalists from staging protests in open waters.

"If someone trespasses in that area, they will be immediately arrested," said a Defense Agency official. "Local people say it's OK to build the base offshore. But if they can't expel environmentalists from the sea, who will take responsibility for that?"



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