Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked U.S. Sen. John McCain on Wednesday to cooperate in moving U.S. Marine Corps personnel to Guam from Okinawa, calling for a budgetary allocation needed to proceed with the plan agreed on between the two countries.
At a separate meeting in Tokyo, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and the senator agreed to move forward the overall plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan, which is aimed at easing the base-hosting burden on the southern island prefecture, Japanese officials said.
The forward-looking stance taken by the veteran senator, the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential race who exerts influence over the U.S. defense budget, could signal a change on the Marine relocation issue, whose slow progress is blamed on Senate reluctance over potential costs.
"I express my appreciation for your efforts at developing the Japan-U.S. alliance relations," Abe told McCain at the outset of the meeting at the prime minister's office.
The senator congratulated Abe for his leadership, noting that the prime minister has given hope not just to Japanese people but also to the United States and the world through his economic policy known as "Abenomics."
During the meeting with McCain, Abe briefed the senator on his government's attempt to change the interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to enable Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense, according to the officials.
"While the regional security (environment) is changing, I hope Japan and the United States will contribute to peace and stability in the region and the international community," Abe was quoted as telling the senator.
At a post-meeting press conference, McCain said the constitutional reform would strengthen the alliance and reinforce Japan's national security.
The current environment presents challenges not foreseen when the pacifist Constitution was introduced in 1947, including piracy and a need to aid allies such as the United States if attacked by terrorists, McCain said.
During the meeting with McCain at the Defense Ministry, Onodera also expressed appreciation for a U.S. Senate resolution in late July condemning the use of force to assert claims to disputed islands in the East and South China seas in light of China's growing maritime assertiveness.
"We will continue to conduct warning and surveillance activities" in the East China Sea, Onodera said, adding that Tokyo has been calling on Beijing to set up a hotline to prevent accidents.
McCain expressed concern about China's increased assertiveness at sea and support for Tokyo on the issue as tensions remain high between the two countries over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China.
"We continue to hear rhetoric from certain authorities in China, which is not helpful," the senator said, adding that a recent rise in the number of patrol ships in waters near the disputed islands does not bode well for "a peaceful resolution" of the dispute.
At his news conference, McCain even described the islands, called Diaoyu in China, as "Japanese territory," deviating from the official U.S. stance that the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands and that it only acknowledges that they are under Japan's administration.
"The fact is the Chinese are violating fundamental rights that Japan has to the Senkakus. I think it would be a mistake to treat it any other way," he said. "To assume anything but the fact that the Senkakus are Japanese territory, I think, would be contradiction to the facts."
McCain said nations feeling increasingly threatened by China's maritime presence "need to act in closer coordination with each other" and present a united front to China by first reconciling their own overlapping claims to marine territories.
The uninhabited islets have been at the center of heightened tensions between Japan and China since Tokyo purchased last September major parts of them from a private Japanese owner, preventing the leaders of the countries from holding a summit.
On the realignment of U.S. forces, Onodera stressed in Wednesday's meeting the importance of following through on a bilateral agreement reached last year to transfer some 9,000 of the 19,000 U.S. Marines in Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere outside of Japan as doing so will help ease burden on the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan.
"Unless the transfer to Guam is realized, the reduction of burden on Okinawa and the current plan to return the land south of Kadena Air Base would not be implemented," Onodera told McCain during their meeting, according to the officials.
McCain concurred that is an important point and that it is necessary for both Washington and Tokyo to accelerate efforts to complete the realignment of U.S. forces in Asia.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also met with McCain on Wednesday, asking for cooperation from U.S. Congress in allocating a necessary budget to proceed with the planned transfer of Marine personnel from Okinawa.
Still, the outlook for securing enough funds to transfer the Marines remains uncertain in the United States, as the Senate has called for more details and clarity on the plan amid concern about a potential increase in the relocation cost in times of fiscal difficulties.
Onodera and McCain also discussed the thorny issue of relocating the Marines' Futenma Air Station, located in a densely populated area in Okinawa, to a reclaimed area within the island, as the U.S. senator expressed hope that Tokyo will be able to gain local approval for the necessary reclamation.
The people of Okinawa have opposed the planned relocation and want the air base moved out of the prefecture, and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has yet to make a final decision on whether to approve Tokyo's application to for the necessary land reclamation work.