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Ao In Okinawa


U.S., Japan settle spat over polluting incinerator


JAPAN: March 20, 2000

TOKYO - Japan and the United States, seeking to clear up feuds that have distracted them from key security issues, settled a spat over pollution at a U.S. naval base and sought to defuse bickering over funding for the U.S. military in Japan.

The spats, which have been distracting the allies from fundamental issues including the future of their decades-old alliance, dominated the agenda at talks here between U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen and Japanese leaders.

Japanese Defence Agency chief Tsutomu Kawara told reporters after meeting Cohen that Tokyo would tackle the problem of a garbage incinerator which the Pentagon says threatens the health of personnel at the Atsugi naval air station 45 km (28 miles) southwest of Tokyo by spewing out toxic smoke.

Japan will foot the full bill for installing filters for the speedy construction of a 330 ft (100 meter) smokestack at the incinerator and for temporary housing for any U.S. navy personnel and their dependents who want to move away from the area affected by the pollution, Kawara said.

U.S. officials said the Japanese government would support, but not join, the United States in filing a lawsuit to halt the operation of the incinerator.

Cohen welcomed action on an issue which has been festering for almost a decade and even irked U.S. President Bill Clinton. Japan had said there was no legal basis for forcing the incinerator operator to either fix the problem or shut down.

"We look forward to seeing full implementation of the proposals," Cohen told reporters.

"This is another example of the close cooperation that we maintain with the government of Japan and an indication of the strength of our relationship that we can deal with this matter in the manner that we have."

The two sides remained split over Japan's wish to reduce the nearly $5 billion it spends annually to help support the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, but there were signs that some compromise might be possible.

Japan - pleading the pinch from a public debt that is the biggest among the advanced nations - has said it might reduce the more than $100,000 it pays annually for each American soldier, sailor, marine and airman for labour, utilities, maintenance and other costs of the military presence.

Cohen told Kawara that Washington recognised Tokyo's fiscal bind, but hoped that Japan would maintain current support levels as much as possible, a Japanese defence official said.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley, speaking to reporters travelling with Cohen, warned that Congress would not like any move by Tokyo to cut support for the military presence.

He said Washington also paid a high price for the forward military presence, including $1 million a day when the Aircraft Carrier Kitty Hawk - stationed in Japan - was at sea.

"If the Japanese should signal to the United States that they were going to reduce their host support, I think it would have a very immediate and negative effect in the Congress," said Foley, who once served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was willing to look for ways to cut costs.

"In the private meetings, they did ask us to be able to demonstrate efficiencies and savings where possible, given the current environment in Japan in which all organisations, both government and private commercial, are being asked to tighten their belts," the U.S. official said.

"We think when an ally who has been extraordinarily generous asks us 'are there areas of potential savings', it is incumbent upon us to look and see what's possible," he added.

Officials said talks on the topic would be continued on a working level in an effort to reach an agreement on the so-called host nation support - dubbed the "sympathy budget" by Japanese media - by early summer.

Seeking to clear up another niggling issue, Cohen said the U.S. military would hand back air traffic control at the Kadena military base on the southern island of Okinawa to Japan once U.S. operating needs were met, a Foreign Ministry official said.

Japanese air controllers have complained that lack of coordination by U.S. controllers has threatened civilian safety.


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