- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Last week, as leaders of the industrialized world gather in Okinawa, Japan, to focus on economic matters, the G-

8 Summit also drew media attention to the presence of U.S. military forces that have been based on the island since the end of World War II.

At first glance, the presence of 26,000 U.S. service members in Okinawa seems an anachronism in an era of relative peace and security. This apparent inconsistency is not lost on the small but vocal number of people opposed to U.S. military bases on the island who have chosen to focus media attention on this issue through a series of protests and rallies during the summit.

A closer analysis, however, reveals that U.S. forces based in Okinawa are part of a larger American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region one that is strongly supported by Japan and by our regional partners due to the important benefits it provides to our nation and to the region. The United States is deeply engaged and involved in the Pacific because of our common desire to shape a stable and secure international environment in a region of strategic importance and of growing promise and prosperity in the new century. U.S. forces based in Okinawa support the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Signed in 1960, it is one of the most important bilateral agreements we have in the Asia-Pacific region and has been key in providing the peace and stability that have allowed sustained economic growth and prosperity for the past 40 years.

The 17,000 U.S. Marines based in Okinawa provide not only a highly visible sign of U.S. commitment to the region but also serve as a force capable of responding quickly to a wide range of missions from disaster and humanitarian relief efforts through peacekeeping operations and, should the need arise, to major theater warfare. U.S. military forces also support peacetime engagement activities with other Asian nations such as training and exercises that both deter aggression and promote democratic principles abroad.

These benefits do not come without cost, and the Okinawan people deserve our gratitude and recognition for the important role they play in supporting this unique regional security agreement. Both U.S. and Japanese policy-makers are keenly aware of the efforts and understanding required of Okinawans, who have for more than a half-century hosted the largest concentration of U.S. military forces based in Japan.

American forces occupy 20 percent of the island's land spread among 39 installations and training areas. During the past 50 years, U.S. forces based in Okinawa have deployed to Korea, Vietnam, and more recently to the Persian Gulf, Indonesia and East Timor to defend American and Japanese interests. Throughout this time, Okinawans have voiced both their support of America and a desire for a reduced U.S. "footprint" on the island.

In response to those concerns and in keeping with our desire to be good neighbors and allies with our Okinawan hosts, U.S. military forces work very closely with Prefectural and local officials. In the past several years, we have taken many significant steps to address local safety, noise and training impact on the island. These measures include moving live-fire artillery exercises to mainland Japan, reducing airfield operating hours, reducing training marches conducted through civilian areas, restricting night live-fire training on ranges, and also moving many training activities to other areas outside Japan.

We are also committed to consolidating, realigning and reducing the number of U.S. facilities on the island consistent with the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Our goal is to return 15 percent of the land currently housing U.S. military installations to the Okinawan people. Included in the consolidation is the planned relocation of a Marine Corps air station from the congested urban area to a less populated area near Nago.

Perhaps most significant among our efforts to maintain good relations are the measures we have taken to address the impact that 26,000 young American service men and women have on local Okinawan communities. U.S. service members, with few exceptions, have always maintained high standards of conduct, due in large part to continuing efforts by commanders to ensure appropriate off-duty behavior. Coupled with continued emphasis on educating soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the local customs and cultural concerns, these steps are improving already good relations with our Okinawan hosts.

Gen. James L. Jones is commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.

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