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Senators urge Obama to freeze Asian base overhaul

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) May 11, 2011
Influential senators called Wednesday on the United States to freeze plans to relocate military bases in Japan and South Korea, describing the moves as politically unfeasible and too costly.

The three senators -- John McCain, Carl Levin and Jim Webb -- also suggested that Japan needed to focus on rebuilding from its massive earthquake and tsunami disaster rather than wade into a political quagmire.

The base realignment plans "are unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable," the senators said in a joint statement.

The appeal undercuts an effort by President Barack Obama's administration to press Japan to honor a 2006 plan under which the Futenma base -- a long source of tension as it lies in a crowded part of Okinawa -- would move to a quiet patch on the same island.

The controversy contributed to the resignation last year of a prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, after he failed to live up to campaign promises to persuade the United States to take a fresh look at the plan.

Webb, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from Virginia, said the plan remained "rife with difficulties" and was too costly when Japan faced the "enormous burden" of reconstruction after its March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The three senators said the two countries should consider moving Futenma's operations to Okinawa's Kadena Air Base and other locations in Japan and the US territory of Guam, ending the need for the contested new facility.

The senators said that public support was also declining for the plan in Guam, which is due to take in 8,000 Marines from Okinawa in 2014. The senators called for a smaller permanent presence on Guam and instead to rotate US troops to the island from elsewhere.

Levin, a Democrat from Michigan who heads the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said the projected timelines in the realignment plan were "totally unrealistic."

"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," he said.

McCain, the top Republican on the committee, offered his support and said that the United States should be open to reconsidering plans as Asia evolves.

"It's very important to maintain strong bilateral alliances to ensure regional security and our national security interests," the Arizona senator and former presidential candidate said.

Okinawa reluctantly hosts more than half of the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan under a post-World War II treaty. Some residents accuse the soldiers of noise and crime in what has become a persistent irritant between the allies.

US officials have voiced hope that Japanese opinion of US forces would improve after the March 11 earthquake, when troops worked round-the-clock to help retrieve bodies, fly in supplies and restore the battered Sendai airport.

The US military is also looking to consolidate dozens of bases around South Korea into two hubs -- Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Seoul, and Daegu, 300 kilometers (180 miles) southeast of the capital.

The move would allow US forces to leave their huge Yongsan base in Seoul, which was set up for the 1950-53 Korean War but now lies in the heart of the developed and densely populated city, leading to frictions with residents.

But the senators called for a halt, saying there was not enough clarity on who would pick up rising costs at Pyeongtaek where the US military wants to start shifting troops next year.

The senators also questioned the Pentagon's plan to allow more of the 28,500 US troops based in South Korea to bring families.

"There is an inherent contradiction in planning to increase the number of US military family members in South Korea when there is the real potential that a destabilizing security situation in North Korea could unfold rapidly and unpredictably," Webb said.



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MILPLEX
US missile test deal offers hope to Marshalls slum
Majuro (AFP) May 11, 2011
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