WASHINGTON - The United States said Wednesday that it needed to maintain a base on the Japanese island of Okinawa to defend the region, as the new government in Tokyo considers scrapping a previous plan.
Senior US officials told Congress that while they respected the decisions of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's six-month-old government, they hoped to go ahead with a plan to move the Futenma air base within Okinawa.
Michael Schiffer, a senior Pentagon official, told a congressional panel that troops in Okinawa were the only ground forces "between Hawaii and India" which the United States could quickly deploy.
"Futenma may be but one base and one part of a larger alliance relationship, but peace and stability in the region depend in no small part on the enduring presence of forward deployed US forces in Japan," said Schiffer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia.
"The United States cannot meet its treaty obligations to defend Japan, cannot respond to humanitarian crises or natural disasters, cannot meet its commitments for regional peace and stability without forward deployed ground forces in Japan," he said.
He said the Futenma move was a "lynchpin" of a 2006 deal under which more than 8,000 US troops would leave Okinawa for the US territory of Guam.
Under the agreement, Futenma would move from the crowded urban hub of Ginowan to a quiet village. Schiffer said the deal was the best solution to ease the burden on Okinawa while defending the region.
But some of Hatoyama's left-leaning allies want the base moved entirely out of Japan, blaming the troops for noise and crime.
Despite US President Barack Obama's support for the 2006 deal, several lawmakers from his Democratic Party have voiced sympathy for Okinawans' grievances.
Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, pointed out that Okinawa accounts for one percent of Japan's land but two-thirds of US bases.
"The Okinawans feel like they're always being the whipping boy for the last 50 years. We just put our military people there and don't have to worry about it," Faleomavaega said.
An independent kingdom until the 19th century, Okinawa was under US administration from 1945 until 1972.
The United States stripped Japan of its right to a military after World War II and now stations some 47,000 troops in the country under a security treaty.