Panetta hails 'important' Okinawa deal

2012-04-27 07:57
Washington - US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has praised an "important agreement" reached with Japan to move 9 000 Marines off the island of Okinawa.

The redeployment, which will see troops moved to Guam, Hawaii and Australia, is expected to ease tensions with the longtime ally over the large US military presence dating back to World War II.

"I am very pleased that, after many years, we have reached this important agreement and plan of action," Panetta said in a statement late on Thursday.

"We will work closely with our partners in the Japanese Self Defence Force to implement these decisions and to further improve this vital alliance."

The deal will go ahead regardless of any progress on moving the busy Futenma airbase from Okinawa, which had originally been a key plank of the deal.

In a joint statement issued in Washington and Tokyo, the two sides said they remained committed to the relocation of the base from its present urban location to a coastal spot - a move that is heavily resisted in Okinawa, where activists want it to be completely removed.

Alliance on track

No definite timeframe was put on the redeployment, with the statement saying only that the "relocations are to be completed as soon as possible while ensuring operational capability throughout the process".

The deal comes just ahead of a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who will meet President Barack Obama on Monday for what both sides hope will be a demonstration that the alliance is back on track.

Japan and the United States have long clashed over Okinawa, the site of sporadic tensions with US troops.

Around half of the 47 000 US service personnel in Japan are based on the strategically located island, which is nearer to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo.

The agreement is part of a wider US strategy under Obama, who is pushing to re-engage with Asia and reconfigure the American military presence in the region amid concerns over China's rapid rise.

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