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     May 21, 2011

Futenma: Time on Okinawa's side
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - If you've been listening, Okinawans have for years been sounding an alarm over the presence of huge United States military bases on their island. Finally, key American legislators are coming round to their point of view, with both the US and Japan's ballooning budget deficits raising doubts over the current US base relocation plan.

Time is on Okinawa's side for sure.

Three influential senior US senators last week condemned the planned relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to a new offshore base to be built on the same island as "unrealistic" and instead proposed integrating it into the nearby

US Kadena Air Base.

The existing US-Japanese plan was criticized in a May 11 joint statement by Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee; Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the committee's personnel subcommittee; and John McCain, the committee's ranking member and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate. The committee has influential power and authority on legislation and expenditure regarding the US military.

They also called for a delay in the realignment of US military forces in South Korea, pending a further review, and a reduction in the Marine Corps presence on Guam by rotating combat units that are home-based elsewhere.

"The proposals would save billions in taxpayer dollars, keep US military forces in the region, greatly reduce the timing of sensitive political issues surrounding MCAS Futenma and reduce the American footprint on Okinawa," the senators' joint statement said.

Levin said the enormous financial burden imposed on Japan by the disastrous March 11 earthquake and tsunami "also must be considered".

The relocation of the Futenma base has been deadlocked for more than a decade due to strong local opposition. The US had demanded that the transfer of around 8,000 Okinawa-based Marines to Guam would not occur unless the heliport functions of the Futenma base are moved by 2014 to a coastal area off the Marines' Camp Schwab in Nago City, northern Okinawa - as agreed in a 2006 bilateral pact with Japan.

But last September the US Department of Defense (DoD) unilaterally announced it would postpone completion of the transfer originally planned for 2014 due to Guam's poor preparedness on infrastructure, as it cannot accept the sudden influx of 8,000 Marines, their 9,000 dependents and construction workers.

Webb, a former US Marine who's visited Okinawa many times, said on his website that the US "DoD should immediately examine the feasibility of moving the Marine Corps assets at Futenma into Kadena Air Force Base, while dispersing a percentage of air force assets now at Kadena into other areas of the Pacific region."

James Jones, US President Barack Obama's former national security advisor, has also repeatedly said the consolidation of Futenma and Kadena bases would be the best option.

Why now?
What led three veteran US senators to reconsider the existing plan? In a whirlwind of international politics, domestic politics matters most. The Obama administration has to overcome mounting political and economical difficulties for a number of domestic issues in the coming months.

First, it needs to firmly proceed to trim the fat off the spending budget, especially on the military, which accounts for about two-thirds of the discretionary federal budget. The US government projects its financial deficit will exceed $1 trillion for four consecutive years in the fiscal year 2012 starting October as it continues to run at the highest level in history.

As the budgetary assessment for 2012 starts this month, US legislators are seeking any room for budgetary spending cuts.

There has been strong criticism against the current relocation plan, which calls for spending of more than $10 billion in Japanese and US funding, with Japan paying 60% and the US bearing the rest. Many experts expect that planning on Guam's military buildup is constantly shifting and the overall price tag will likely rise, as almost always happens in military spending.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned against the rising financial deficit, saying that "the biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt". This illustrates the seriousness of the US financial situation.

Second, the senators' appeal came shortly before US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to leave the Pentagon by June 30, to be replaced by Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta. By taking advantage of the occasion of a change of defense chief, they appear to be urging a policy shift on US bases in East Asia. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the start of a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July also give the US administration a break in the fight against terrorism. This, along with a new defense chief, may bring about a new US global strategy, including on US bases abroad.

Third, in the so-called two-plus-two security meeting between foreign and defense ministers in May 2010, the two nations agreed to decide the specific location and construction method for a Futenma replacement facility before the next two-plus-two meeting, which is scheduled to be held by the end of June this year. The senators urged both nations' officials to look at the reality of the endless political stalemate over the Okinawa base relocation issue.

Okinawans against Futenma consolidation The initial Okinawan response to the integration plan involving Kadena was not so bad. Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said the proposal could be considered if it resulted in less fighter aircraft traffic at Kadena, reduced noise and base functions and eased of the burden on local communities.

However, he has gradually cooled on the idea, stressing the problems of noise pollution and the crimes of certain US soldiers.

In late April, more than 22,000 residents around the Kadena base filed a lawsuit demanding a night-time flight ban and a combined 44.6 billion Japanese yen (US$540 million) in compensation from the Japanese government, arguing their health has been affected by aircraft noise. The number of plaintiffs accounts for about one third of Kadena Town and around one in every 70 Okinawans. This put pressure on the governor not to make any compromise with the US. The Kadena base occupies 83% of Kadena Town.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said on Thursday it will be "physically difficult" for Japan to comply with its agreement with the US to complete the planned relocation of the Futenma base by 2014 within Okinawa.

"The 2006 road map calls for the completion of a replacement facility for Futenma by 2014, but 2014 is just in front of our eyes," Kitazawa told the House of Representatives Committee on Security. "The Japanese government and Okinawa have not reached a deal," he said, referring to the strong local opposition.

He pointed out Guam's lack of infrastructure, which could also delay the original relocation plan, and he proposed that the two nations frankly discuss how to proceed with the deadlocked plan at the two-plus-two security meeting scheduled to be held in late June.

The initial Pentagon response was not encouraging for those who hope the senators' intervention may change US policy.

"We appreciate the perspectives of the senators, but the press release does not change our commitment to current plans to maintain a forward presence in the region that is geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable," Pentagon spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde told Asia Times Online.

"Current agreements and policies have been carefully developed over many years in close consultation and coordination with our allies and within the US government, including with the military services and with congress," she said. "This release does not change our commitment to our current approach."

Talk of the consolidation of the Futenma and Kadena bases has disappeared every time it has arisen in the past. To make it a politically feasible solution, the US needs to reduce the prospect of noise pollution. More importantly, as the US and Chinese militaries begin to recognize the necessity of working together, perhaps Japan and the US should be reconsidering the entire raison d'etre of massive US bases in Okinawa.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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