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Sunday, June 10, 2012

CABINET INTERVIEW

Morimoto hopes to see progress on Futenma


Staff writer

New Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto plans to proceed with a contentious plan to relocate the U.S. Futenma air station farther north on Okinawa Island.

News photo
Sticking to the script: Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto holds a joint media interview Friday in Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI

"I think moving the base (from Ginowan) to the Henoko coastal district is the best possible way to resolve the issue," Morimoto, 71, a former professor of Takushoku University's graduate school and an expert on defense and security issues, told The Japan Times and other media outlets during an interview Friday.

To make progress on the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the first unelected head of the Defense Ministry vowed to win the acceptance and cooperation of Okinawans.

"The promise Japan and the United States made (to each other) is important," Morimoto said.

The two sides initially struck a deal in 1996 to return the Futenma site to Japan within five to seven years, contingent on a replacement facility being up and running in the same time frame. The Henoko coast at U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab was selected as the replacement site.

Even though Tokyo and Washington have further solidified their original 2006 accord and appear determined to stick with the current plan, fierce local resistance to keeping the base in Okinawa has prevented any significant progress.

Morimoto said he is aware residents in the prefecture oppose the relocation plan but pledged to "realize the bilateral agreement and return the base (land) to Japan as soon as possible."

Okinawa residents are also opposed to the deployment, possibly next month, of MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to the Futenma base, citing safety fears over the vertical takeoff and landing-capable planes. An MV-22 crashed during a drill in Morocco in April, killing two marines and injuring two others.

The Defense Ministry said Friday it has been informed by the U.S. that the crash did not involve any mechanical malfunction or defects. Earlier reports tentatively blamed the crash on human error.

Morimoto said the government will have to confirm the plane's safety to assure those living near the Futenma facility, dubbed the world's most dangerous base by some locals, that the Ospreys pose no danger.

On other matters, Morimoto voiced security concerns over Northeast Asia, especially about North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

"Pyongyang recently inaugurated a new leader, but at present we are not sure what direction he plans to take country in," he said, adding the international community, particularly Japan and the United States, failed to prevent the North from test-launching a long-range missile in April.

"If there is another launch in future, it could possibly have severe consequences for Japan's security," Morimoto said.

He meanwhile noted that he does not think China poses a threat to regional security at present, but called on Beijing to proceed with more caution in regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

"I hope China will follow international rules and play a role in helping the international community achieve stability," he said, adding Tokyo is carefully watching Beijing's foreign policy moves after a leadership change scheduled for later this year.



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The Japan Times

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