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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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