The Obama administration late Thursday announced yet another attempt to settle the prolonged and increasingly bitter clash with Japan over the controversial and expensive plan to relocate thousands of U.S. Marines off the crowded island of Okinawa.
Senior defense and State Department officials said the revised agreement would strengthen the critical alliance between the U.S. and Japan, create a more sustainable plan and demonstrate flexibility by the two governments. The ability to retain about 19,000 Marines in the Pacific also would support the administration’s new strategy that refocuses US defense forces’ attention to the Asia-Pacific region.
The island of Okinawa, about 400 miles south of the main Japanese islands, has been a key strategic U.S. asset since it was captured in the last bloody battle of the World War II campaign in the Pacific.
Air and naval forces based there were a major part of the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union, and its sometime ally, China. They also were part of the planned U.S. response to any repeat of North Korea’s 1950 invasion of South Korea. And Okinawa was an important staging base and rest facility for Air Force and Navy forces during the Vietnam War.
Today, the large 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, teamed with the amphibious ships based in Japan proper, are a quick reaction unit for any conflict or humanitarian relief effort in the western Pacific.
And that integrated air-ground-logistics Marine force, and the Air Force squadrons also based on Okinawa, have become part of the U.S. counterbalance to China’s growing and threatening military capabilities. But the growing political conflict over the U.S. military presence on Okinawa has become a threat to our alliance with Japan, the anchor to America’s strategic commitment to the Western Pacific.
The new deal on relocating the Marines was announced in a joint statement from Washington and Tokyo at 10 pm Thursday.
At an earlier Pentagon briefing, the two officials speaking on background predicted that “some aspects” of the new plan “will be well received,” apparently referring to Okinawa, where the Marine presence has been meeting increasingly strong opposition.
The relocation plan, initially conceived in 2006, also has encountered growing hostility in the Congress, particularly the Senate, where Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, ranking member John McCain, and Sen. Jim Webb have put a hold on funding for the moves until the Pentagon presents detailed plans and a range of options.
The original relocation plan would have moved about 9,000 Marines — nearly half — out of the congested bases on Okinawa, with most moving to Guam. That would allow the return of land to Okinawa. In return, Japan would have absorbed a substantial part of the relocation costs, most of which would be incurred in building new facilities in Guam.
A key part of the deal was the U.S. demand to relocate the Marine air units from the Futenma air station, in the heavily congested southern part of Okinawa, to a new facility in a less populated northern area. That plan has been bitterly opposed by a series of Okinawa governors and the mayors of the cities near the proposed new base.
And it has been a major political burden for the last three Japanese governments, including current prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, who Joined President Barack Obama in announcing the new deal.
A key part of the new deal is designed to give Tokyo “greater flexibility” in relocating Futenma, the two officials told reporters. In return, Japan would help pay the unspecified cost of upgrading and sustaining that air station until it could be relocated.
The two officials at the Pentagon briefing said the new plan would move about 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, with about 5,000 going to Guam and the rest distributed to other locations in the Pacific. Some are expected to move to Hawaii and others to California, where there are existing Marine bases. The administration recently announced plans to have 2,500 Marines rotate through a base on Australia’s northwest coast.
That would leave an average of about 10,000 Marines on Okinawa, although many usually are deployed else where, including now in Afghanistan.
Under the new plan, Japan would pick up $3.1 billion of the estimated $8.6 billion cost of moving to Guam.
There was no firm time line for any of the planned moves.
In a release, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was “very pleased” with the agreement and expressed his appreciation for Japanese Defense Minister Tanaka for leading the discusions.
Now that the decisions have been made on the Marine relocation, Japan’s financial contribution and the Futenma replacement, Panetta said, “we will work closely with our partners in the Japanese Self Defense Force to implement these decisions and to further improve this vital alliance of ours.”
“Japan is not just a close ally, but also a close friend. And I look forward to deepening that friendship and strengthening our partnership as, together, we address security challenges in the region,” the secretary said.
Asked about the opposition from Congress, the senior defense official said the recent letter from the three senators showed that they “shared the objectives” of the planned relocation and the administration would “consult closely” with Congress as the plan unfolds.
In a joint statement, the three senators said they appreciate the willingness of the Pentagon and State Department to “accommodate some” of their concerns. But, they added, “we still have many questions about the specific details of this statement and its implications for our force posture in the Asia-Pacific region and we will continue to work with the Administration and the Government of Japan to achieve the objectives we all share: a mutually beneficial, militarily effective, and fiscally sustainable agreement regarding the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa and Guam.”
The senators also said they will “await the findings and recommendations of the independent assessment on U.S. force posture” in the region, as required by last year’s defense authorization.
The senior defense official said that assessment was expected in June.