Okinawans see duplicity in US
withdrawal By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - With the United States shifting
its axis of security toward the Asia-Pacific by
expanding its military footprint in Australia, the
Philippines and Vietnam, it may be high time for
the United States Marine Corps to leave Japan's
A shifting security dynamic in
the region, most notably due to China's enhanced
strike capabilities, will likely marginalize the
marines' presence on the island.
the US this week agreed to move about 4,700
marines from Okinawa to the US Pacific territory
of Guam, while sticking to fiercely opposed plans
to move US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma
to a new offshore base to be built in a coastal
area off Camp Schwab,
another marine base in Nago City, northern
The shift to Guam is a departure
from a previous 2006 bilateral agreement on the
realignment of US forces in Japan. Until now, the
US had claimed that the transfer of about 8,000
Okinawa-based marines to Guam and the completion
of Henoko airbase in Nago were a package deal. It
had also demanded that Tokyo show "tangible
progress" in the construction of a new heliport as
a prerequisite for the transfer of the marines to
"The US has conducted a
strategic review of its defense posture in Asia,"
the US State Department and the Japanese Foreign
Ministry said in a joint statement on February 8.
"Japan welcomes this initiative."
Why did the US
change course by delinking the transfer of marines
to Guam with the long-standing, thorny issue of
the Futenma relocation?
opposition Necessity knows no law. First
of all, the Pentagon is apparently impatient with
the political impasse caused by Okinawans'
opposition to the new airbase in Nago. Although
Tokyo supports the plan, it has been strongly
opposed by the Okinawa prefectural government and
the vast majority of Okinawa residents for years.
"[I] expect both governments to have
consultations based on local opinions," Okinawa
Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said on February 8. "The
relocation plan of Futenma base without local
consent would be impossible. [We have] no change
in demanding the new facility to move out of
The planned transfer of
thousands of marines to Guam without progress on
the Futenma relocation is also part of an ongoing
US strategy to counter China's military build-up,
especially its growing naval power in the West
The Pentagon is closely watching
China's "anti-access/area denial" strategy, which
envisions blocking freedom of movement for US
ships. By creating two lines of coastal defenses
in the region, military analysts believe Beijing
aims to nullify the capabilities of US aircraft
carriers and air defenses within the zone.
The so-called AirSea battle concept
combines US air and naval strengths. It departs
from the Cold War-era AirLand Battle doctrine
drafted to prepare for an invasion by the former
The AirSea battle concept
meant to combat China's growing military might
doesn't fit with high troop levels on Okinawa,
since the latter cannot be moved swiftly and could
be easily targeted by China's middle-range
ballistic missiles such as the DF-21.
new battle strategy forces the Pentagon to keep
key US forces out of China's strike range.
"It's better for US Marines to keep at a
safe distance from China," Japanese military
analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online.
"I expect the US to fortify Guam as a strong
military base from now on."
number of US Marines on Okinawa Japanese
media have reported that apart from moving 4,700
marines from Okinawa to Guam, the Pentagon is also
considering rotating 3,300 to other overseas bases
in the Pacific such as Hawaii, Australia and the
Of the 3,300 marines, media
have reported that 1,000 will be deployed to
Hawaii and 800 to the US mainland. Meanwhile,
other media have said 2,300 will go to Darwin in
northern Australia and 1,000 to Hawaii.
It's also been reported that the US has
sounded out Tokyo on transferring about 1,500
marines to the Iwakuni marine base in Yamaguchi
Prefecture - the only Marine Corps Air Station on
mainland Japan - with central and local
governments flatly rejecting the idea.
Some US Marines stationed in Okinawa will
likely move to South Korea, Chosun Ilbo also has
reported. Pentagon spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde
on Friday denied the South Korean newspaper's
report by saying, "there has been no discussion
between the US and the Republic of Korea [South
Korea] on this issue".
Unclear figures on
how many US Marines are actually on Okinawa - due
to expeditions and rotating shifts - has also
aggravated the Japanese public. While both the US
and Japanese governments claim 18,000 marines are
normally based on Okinawa, the Okinawa prefectural
government says only 14,958 marines were based on
the island as of September 2009.
experts estimate the number at 12,000-14,000 at
best in recent years because of deployments to
Iraq and Afghanistan. Then Japanese defense
minister Toshimi Kitazawa said in February 2010
that there were only 4,000 to 5,000 marines
stationed on Okinawa due to Iraqi and Afghanistan
The US and Japanese
governments say there will 10,000 marines in
Okinawa even after shifting 8,000 marines around
the island. But the claim could be just a pretext
to avoid military budget cuts. Plans for deep
US defense cuts are another major likely reason
why moving the marines out of Okinawa has been
disconnected from the relocation of the Futenma
With the national budget deficit
expected to exceed $1 trillion in 2012 for the
fourth consecutive year, President Barack Obama on
January 5 unveiled a new defense strategy that
aims at significantly reducing the country's
defense expenditure. It calls for a downsizing of
the US military and for priority deployment of
troops in the Asia-Pacific region.
Pentagon is looking to cut defense spending by
$487 billion over the next 10 years by eliminating
almost 100,000 US ground troops as part of plans
for a "smaller, leaner" military. Specifically, it
plans to reduce the marine corps by 20,000 to
182,000 active-duty members.
reason for the realignment of US forces in Japan
could be a change of Washington's top Asia
officials. Wallace Gregson, a former US assistant
secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific
security affairs, and James Steinberg, a former
duty Secretary of State, both resigned last year.
The Pentagon on Monday also announced that Michael
Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense,
Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, East Asia,
will step down soon.
The shake-up of top
policymakers who've been engaged in past
negotiations with Japan might have brought about a
policy change this time around. This is simply be
down to bureaucrats' unshakeable belief in in
their own infallibility.
Henoko plan is
impossible Almost all analysts agree that
the transfer of the US Futenma air station to an
off-shore location in Henoko Bay Nago would be
impossible due to the strong opposition from
Okinawans. But abolishing this unrealistic plan
still seems a taboo among US and Japanese policy
"My point is that we do not have
to be paralyzed between the existing Futenma
facility and the Henoko option that doesn't seem
realistic," US Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of
Virginia, said in a recent interview with Dispatch
"The Henoko plan is impossible,"
Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese
Foreign Ministry's international intelligence
bureau, told Asia Times Online. "But Japan cannot
say, 'we cannot do it' to the US." Magosaki said.
As Tokyo sits on the fence, resentment
towards the US military bases on Okinawa is
rising, especially as official campaigning for the
mayoral election in Ginowan City kicked off in
February - the planned relocation of the Futenma
airbase is the top issue. Both of the poll's two
candidates want the Futenma air station, which
occupies a quarter of the city's total land area,
moved out of the prefecture.
Tokyo and Washington struggling to win the consent
of Okinawans to the relocation plan, there are
worries in Japan over the Futenma air station
becoming fixed in its present location in Ginowan
The US also seems to have used this
logic to advance the relocation plan. In the late
1990s, there were plans to just close the Futenma
airbase, not relocate it, after three marines
raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl; but in 2006, the
US administration managed to make the closing of
Futenma a package deal linked to the building of a
new heliport in Henoko.
One fatal military
accident at Futenma airbase, which is surrounded
by more than 100 schools, hospitals and shops,
could trigger very strong anti-US sentiment. This
could severely damage the presence of the island's
Kadena airbase, the largest and strongest US
military base in the Far East.
such an aggravating situation just in case, the
closing of the contentious Futenma air station
without a new facility is the best way forward for
both governments, as was once agreed in the late
Kosuke Takahashi is a
Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. His twitter
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