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Monday, July 23, 2012

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Fait accompli: A ship carrying MV-22 Ospreys leaves the South Korean port of Busan on Sunday for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. KYODO

Japan urges U.S. to wait for Okinawans' consent

Ospreys arrive as fears raised about alliance


Staff writer

Even as a cargo ship carrying 12 MV-22 Ospreys entered Japanese waters for its arrival at Yamaguchi Prefecture on Monday, the government is pressing the United States to delay its deployment of the tilt-rotor aircraft in Okinawa until local residents assent, fearing growing opposition will damage the bilateral security alliance.

The cargo ship reportedly left the South Korean port of Busan on Sunday for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and entered the Kanmon Straits separating Yamaguchi Prefecture and Kyushu later in the day.

The U.S. aims to replace 24 aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters with Ospreys, a hybrid transport aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and cruise like an airplane at twice the speed of the CH-46.

But two recent crashes, in Florida and Morocco, have increased safety concerns and angered Okinawans, who have seen a number of accidents involving locally based U.S. aircraft. One of the worst came in 2004, when a helicopter crash-landed on the campus of Okinawa International University. Nobody except the crew was hurt.

On Friday, Vice Defense Minister Shu Watanabe asked visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to take into consideration local concerns about the safety of the Osprey.

"I told the deputy secretary it will possibly impact the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the security treaty in the long run, if the U.S. is to forcefully deploy the Osprey in Okinawa," Watanabe told reporters after the meeting.

At a press conference Saturday in Tokyo, Carter said ensuring the safety of the aircraft is a top priority. He also emphasized that the U.S. is fully aware of the fierce opposition to the deployment and will share as much information as possible.

The U.S. has made an unusual concession to address growing unease over the plane: The Ospreys will remain grounded at the base in Iwakuni pending the release of investigative reports into the two recent crashes. Furthermore, no test flights will be carried out elsewhere in the country.

But the deployment of the hybrid aircraft is not simply a regional issue limited to two host bases. The U.S. plans to make test flights along six routes over the country, including one from the Tohoku region down to the Amami Islands, south of Kyushu.

The SOFA does not require the U.S. to consult with the Japanese government before it carries out any test flights.

The U.S. military postponed low-altitude test flights from Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico after it faced stiff opposition from towns close to the base. Opponents in Japan argued the U.S. should take a similarly cautious stance here.

Opposition is even growing within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, whose leader, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, is already dealing with the defection of dozens of lawmakers, including former kingpin Ichiro Ozawa.

Noda last week said that under SOFA rules, Japan has no say in the Osprey plan. Nevertheless, Seiji Maehara, the DPJ's policy chief and a long-time proponent of a solid Japan-U.S. security alliance, has criticized Noda for ignoring the public's will. Maehara met with U.S. Ambassador John Roos earlier this month and conveyed the DPJ's request that deployment be delayed.

"If the Osprey is brought to Iwakuni and deployed in Okinawa as scheduled, it will harm the Japan-U.S. alliance," Maehara said Thursday.

The Group of Liberals, made up of 35 DPJ members, also submitted a resolution to the prime minister's office expressing opposition until the host towns give their consent and a probe into the two crashes is completed.

The U.S. is set to compile the final reports on the crashes by the end of August.



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