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Friday, April 19, 2002

Marines need Okinawa: commander

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Although the U.S. Marines are expanding their training exercises to locations outside Japan, Okinawa should remain their permanent base in the Pacific, the commander of the Marine Corps bases in Japan said Thursday.

News photo
W.C. Gregson

In an interview with The Japan Times, Lt. Gen. W.C. "Chip" Gregson added that by the same token, he hopes to see more discussion between Japan and the United States on how the marines and Ground Self-Defense Forces can better cooperate, and perhaps hold more joint exercises on mainland Japan.

"U.S. President (George W.) Bush and Japanese Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi reaffirmed the importance of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty to regional security," Gregson said. "This reaffirmation might lead to more discussion on what else the two militaries can do in combined fashion, although we realize this raises huge internal issues for Japan."

Gregson said the U.S. would welcome more opportunities to train with Japanese forces on the main islands.

Since assuming his post in August, Gregson has pushed for more training to be held outside of Okinawa, where opposition to the huge U.S. military presence remains strong.

"We've expanded our training in the Pacific area," he said. "Guam is very useful, because it's a stepping stone for expanding training throughout Micronesia."

The marines have taken over an old housing complex on Guam for urban training exercises, he said, adding that in the future, the U.S. and its allies will hopefully also train there.

"But Okinawa's geographical significance makes it absolutely essential as a permanent base," he stressed. "There is simply no other location with Okinawa's strategic advantages."

Over the past few years, some U.S. and Japanese military experts have suggested that the U.S. Marine presence on Okinawa could be reduced to about 5,000 from the roughly 20,000 currently there.

Gregson did not comment on specific suggestions for reduction, but he said reports that the marines are "marooned" on Okinawa because of a lack of amphibious ships are not accurate.

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