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Abe, Obama desperate to eliminate impact of Okinawa incident on alliance

Protesters demonstrate outside Kadena Air Base, in Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture, on May 25, 2016. (Mainichi)

The arrest of a civilian U.S. base worker for allegedly abandoning the body of a woman in Okinawa Prefecture has cast a shadow over Japan-U.S. relations although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed at a meeting on May 25 to strengthen the bilateral alliance.

The incident also demonstrates that whenever a serious offense by a U.S. military serviceman or civilian employee occurs, anti U.S. base sentiment intensifies in Okinawa and adversely affects the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Before reporters asked him questions at a joint news conference following the meeting, Obama said the United States has been greatly shocked by the Okinawa incident. "We consider it inexcusable, and we are committed to doing everything that we can to prevent any crimes from taking place of this sort," he told reporters.

Both the Japanese and U.S. governments were desperate to respond to the incident shortly after it broke out.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in a telephone conversation on May 21 that he hoped that the case would be dealt with under Japanese legislation.

In the past, Japan and the United States have often been at odds over the handover of U.S. servicemen or civilian military employees involved in crimes in Japan, with it taking a long time before the United States handed over such suspects to Japan.

In a rare move, Carter asked Tokyo to deal with the latest case under Japanese criminal procedures after Washington determined the incident occurred while the suspect was off duty, and said Washington would swiftly step up efforts to work out measures to prevent a recurrence.

The Japanese and U.S. governments quickly responded to the incident because Obama's visit to Japan, which is believed to be his last as president, was drawing near. Moreover, Obama will visit the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima on May 27 as the first sitting U.S. president. As such, officials of both governments were desperate to minimize the incident's impact on the historic phase that can show the world the maturity of the bilateral alliance.

Under the Abe administration, Japan has regarded the Japan-U.S. alliance as the core of its diplomacy and deepened bilateral security relations. The scope of cooperation that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) extends to U.S. forces has expanded as Japan and the United States revised the guidelines for defense cooperation in April 2015 and Japan enacted security legislation that has opened the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

The Obama government, which has advocated a "rebalancing" policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, attaches particular importance to its relations with Japan, the core of the U.S. strategy toward Asia. U.S. administration officials worked out a scenario under which Japan and the United States will jointly vow to pursue a world without nuclear weapons from Hiroshima in a bid to demonstrate that the bilateral relations are a partnership that can respond to global challenges.

However, it appears difficult to eliminate the impact of the latest Okinawa incident on the Japan-U.S. alliance. Demonstrations have been held in front of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa Prefecture to protest the incident. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly intends to deliberate on May 26 on a draft resolution to protest the incident, which includes demands that U.S. Marines be withdrawn from the prefecture.

The Japanese government has sought Okinawa residents' understanding of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture by offering measures to reduce the burden of U.S. bases on the prefecture and to revitalize the local economy. However, if public opinion calling for ridding Okinawa of all U.S. bases is to intensify, the base relocation, which Tokyo has promised Washington to carry out, would be more difficult to achieve.

In a meeting held at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on May 23 in the wake of the arrest of the ex-Marine, Abe told Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, "We'd like to sympathize with Okinawa residents, who have shouldered a heavy burden for 70 years since the end of the war and do our utmost to reduce the burden."

However, there are no feasible measures to relocate the Futenma base out of the prefecture as demanded by Onaga, and the strategic importance of Okinawa for the United States in terms of deterrence against China remains unchanged.

"Realignment of U.S. forces (in Okinawa) can't progress unless we sympathize with the feelings of Okinawa residents," Prime Minister Abe told the joint news conference, showing concern over the impact that the incident will have on base relocation and expressing his determination to do his best to restore the public's trust in U.S. forces.

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