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U.S. Fears Vieques Domino Effect In Okinawa

By Sue Pleming

August 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - A top U.S. military official said on Friday he feared successful protests to end war games on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques could reduce training and base access to U.S. troops in places like Okinawa, Japan.

Widespread protests against bombing exercises on Vieques and expectations that its residents would vote the military off the island in a scheduled November referendum led President George W. Bush to announce the military would pull out of the Puerto Rican island by 2003.

Gen. James Jones, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he was concerned the Vieques protests could have an effect in places like Okinawa, where there is already pressure to reduce the U.S. military presence and shift exercises elsewhere.

"I do worry about the effect of being forced to leave Vieques , not only on domestic training ranges, but on international access," Jones told reporters at a luncheon.

"This is a small world now and people on Okinawa watch what happens on Vieques and they will draw conclusions from that," he added.

Emotions have run high in Okinawa against the U.S. military following a series of incidents in recent years. Anger among Okinawa residents surged after a U.S. airman allegedly raped a Japanese woman in late June.

Jones said there had been some problems in Okinawa but the military was taken to task for even the smallest transgression while good deeds such as saving a local boy's life who choked at a picnic or helping to transport a teen-ager in need of a heart transplant, went unnoticed.

"It is a fight for public opinion there but I am extraordinarily proud of all of the good things we have done" in Okinawa, he said.

The island is host to some 27,000 U.S. military staff, about half the U.S. military presence in Japan and one quarter of that in Asia.


Discussing Vieques , Jones said he was not aware of any place that could duplicate the kind of conditions found there for a broad range of exercises.

"We are working on trying to find the best substitute we can," he said. "There may be some possibilities with islands that we don't know. We will have to wait and see."

Citing the usefulness of Vieques , he said pilots who had trained on the Puerto Rican island had a 10 percent higher target rate during Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign against Iraqi targets in December 1998.

Asked how relations had soured on Vieques , he said the military could have worked harder to improve ties with the community, negotiated with the authorities more and kept a senior official there at all times.

"Community bonds were not developed and the relationship deteriorated," he said.

Jones said sovereignty issues meant fewer and fewer nations were keen to allow U.S. troops to establish a permanent presence in their countries. "I don't know that there are many countries that ask us to come and build our bases.... That's a 20th century paradigm," he said.

He stressed the United States must stay "forward-engaged." Instead of having huge peacetime bases, one option was to have a series of "lily pads" in the Pacific from which U.S. forces could conduct training exercises in nearby countries and then return without leaving huge "footprints."

Jones said he had meetings with nearly 30 of the world's marine corps this year - in the Pacific Rim, in Europe and in South America - to discuss this option.

"What I have learned is that there is a tremendous affinity ... to work together and to share access and common training techniques," he said.

The idea of doing reciprocal visits is very important to "keep us joined at the hip" without resorting to huge bases used by the United States abroad in the previous century, he said.

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