July 23, 2009 / 7:27 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. forces chief in Japan: realignment should proceed

TOKYO (Reuters) - A planned rejig of U.S. military forces in Japan, including moving 8,000 Marines to Guam, should proceed whatever the outcome of a Japanese national election next month, the top U.S. military commander in Japan said on Thursday.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan has pledged to review the realignment plan if, as surveys suggest, it wins an August 30 election. Surveys show the opposition have their best-ever shot at ousting the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), ending more than 50 years of almost unbroken rule.

The Democrats’ promise to adopt a diplomatic stance less subservient to Washington has sparked some concerns about upsets in the alliance, under which Japan has followed Washington’s lead in return for protection under its “nuclear umbrella.”

“The (realignment) road map is not a menu from which either side can pick and choose what it wants to implement,” Lt. General Edward Rice told a news conference.

“It will continue to be important that we have support from the government of the United States, as we do today, and the government of Japan, as we do today, until the agreement is fully implemented,” he said.

The realignment agreement, reached in 2006, aims to tighten U.S.-Japan military ties, streamline U.S. forces in Japan — where they often cause friction with local residents — and set the stage for Japan to play a bigger role in the alliance.

Implementation of the realignment deal has been delayed already by objections from some residents of the southern island of Okinawa to moving the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base from a crowded, centrally located city to a coastal area. Relocating the air base’s function is key to shifting the Marines to Guam.

The opposition Democrats have also attacked the Guam plan as too costly, since Tokyo will foot a hefty portion of a total estimated cost of more than $10 billion.

Rice said, however, that the U.S.-Japan alliance — the core of Japan’s diplomatic and security stance since its defeat in World War Two — would weather any changes in administration.

“The primacy of the relationship between the United States and Japan will remain as it has been for 50 years,” Rice said.

“There may be some changes around the edges, but I think that the fundamentals of this relationship are so strong that they will survive elections in both countries for the foreseeable future.”

Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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