US senators urge rethink on Okinawa base plan

File image of aircraft at Futenma airbase in Okinawa on 17 December 2010
Image caption A plan to replace Futenma with a new airbase in northern Okinawa has strained US-Japan ties

Three top US senators have called for a review of a planned reorganisation of US forces in East Asia, including the Okinawa base relocation project.

The senators described the realignment plans as "unworkable and unaffordable".

Political realities in Okinawa, plus the economic damage suffered by quake-hit Japan, made the base relocation plan "unrealistic" they said.

The US and Japan want to build a new airbase in northern Okinawa but most of the island's residents oppose the plan.

The call came in a joint statement on Wednesday from one Republican and two Democrat senators.

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain are the two highest-ranking members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, while Senator Jim Webb chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for East Asia and the Pacific.

'Simply unaffordable'

They flagged up three plans - the realignment of US forces in South Korea, the relocation of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and the construction of a new base in Okinawa to replace the ageing Futenma airbase.

"The significant estimated cost growth associated with some projects is simply unaffordable in today's increasingly constrained fiscal environment," Sen Levin said in the statement.

"Political realities in Okinawa and Guam, as well as the enormous financial burden imposed on Japan by the devastation resulting from the disastrous March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, also must be considered."

The trio proposed examining whether the functions of Futenma airbase could be moved to Kadena airbase, also on Okinawa, thus removing the need to build a new facility.

Japan's top government spokesman maintained the country was committed to the base relocation plan.

"There is no change in our policy to carry out the Japan-US accord steadily," Yukio Edano told a news conference.

But the plan - an issue that has already bought down one Japanese prime minister - appears to be deadlocked.

Last week Japan's Yomiuri newspaper said the two governments had agreed to drop a 2014 deadline for implementing the proposal, citing an unnamed government source.

Futenma airbase is located in the densely populated south of Okinawa island. Both the US and Japan want to relocate it to a new offshore facility at Camp Schwab in Henoko in the less populated north.

But residents and lawmakers there oppose the plan, as do environmentalists who say it will devastate marine life in the area.

Many residents also say that Futenma should be moved off Okinawa altogether - pointing to the fact that Okinawa hosts 74% of all US bases in Japan on less than 1% of its landmass.

The row has left ties between the US and Japan strained.

Under the half-century-old US-Japan security alliance, the US agrees to defend Japan in return for land for military bases, which Japan funds.

More on this story