Conflict & Justice

Future of US military base in Japan up in the air


Anti-US military base protesters hold posters reading "Military Base, NO!" during a rally in Tokyo on April 14, 2010.


Toshifumi Kitamura

TOKYO, Japan — On the face of it, plans for one of the biggest recalibrations in decades of the U.S. military presence in East Asia remain unchanged.

Last month, Japanese and U.S. officials conceded they would not meet the 2014 deadline for the relocation of Futenma, a huge Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa, and the transfer of thousands of Marines.

But in a joint statement after two-plus-two talks in Washington, the two sides said the relocation — a major irritant to U.S.-Japan ties recently — would proceed unchanged "at the earliest possible date after 2014."

Under an agreement reached in 2006, the Futenma base, which is located in a heavily populated city, is to be moved to a coastal location farther north on the island, and 8,000 Marines and their families will be transferred to Guam.

Yet five years on, the prospects for relocation look dimmer than ever. The biggest obstacle is posed by the Okinawan people, who view Futenma as symbolic of the unfair military burden they have suffered since the end of World War II.

They complain of the noise and the constant threat of aircraft accidents; of crimes committed by U.S. personnel and the tensions that arise from the civilian community's proximity to its military guests.

Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's land mass, hosts two-thirds of U.S. military facilities and about half of the 47,000 U.S. troops based in the country.

While many Okinawans' livelihoods depend on U.S. bases scattered around the island, local leaders want Futenma to close, and its functions and personnel moved off the island altogether.

The island's governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has accused the two countries' leaders of ignoring local concerns. "It is virtually impossible to deliver a relocation plan that can gain the acceptance of local people,'' he said.

But this week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterrated Washington's commitment to the original plan. ''We delayed the 2014 date, but even while we are doing that, we are still very much committed to finding a solution for this very important issue,'' he told reporters in Seoul.

Under pressure from the U.S. to proceed with the original plan, and unable to find an alternative host for Futenma elsewhere in Japan, the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, has toed the Washington line since becoming leader just over a year ago.

His Democratic party's erstwhile vision of a foreign policy less beholden to the U.S. has been abandoned in the face of perennial tensions on the Korean peninsula, uncertainty over an expected dynastic transfer of power in North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.

The Okinawa relocation is part of a wider realignment of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific that could affect troop numbers in Japan, South Korea and Guam.

That consolidation will proceed against a backdrop of increasing threats to regional security.

Underlining the risks of even partial U.S. disengagement from the region, a recent report by the Lowy Institute in Australia said a rise in the number of incidents involving the Chinese navy in the crowded sea lanes of Indo-Pacific Asia could draw in the U.S. and Japan, and even lead to war.

"China's frictions with the United States, Japan and India are likely to persist and intensify," the report said. "As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict."

Kan now finds himself in the unenviable position of meeting U.S. expectations while attempting to sell the Futenma plan to Okinawan leaders.

Yet there could be a workable alternative, as envisioned by three influential U.S. senators — Carl Levin, Jim Webb and John McCain — who described the current Futenma blueprint as "unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable."

The cost for the relocation to the two countries is now approaching $27 billion, far higher than the original $10 billion estimated in 2006.

The senators have proposed shelving the move to Guam, where residents are wary of the possible influx of troops, and absorbing them in other bases in the region, possibly as far away as Hawaii.

They have also suggested shifting Marine Corps aircrafts to Kadena, also on Okinawa, and moving noisy jets from Kadena to other U.S. facilities around Japan. That would reduce noise pollution and remove the need for a new offshore runway on the island that would destroy the local ecosystem.

Japan's foreign minister has dismissed the alternative idea, but opinion is divided on the other side of the Pacific.

Last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to block $150 million from a construction budget for Marine Corps facilities on Guam from the federal budget — a move that, if passed in the Senate, would essentially scrap the Futenma move.

This week, the White House urged the Senate to reinstate the expenditure. "Deferring or eliminating these projects could signal that the U.S. does not stand by its allies or its agreements such as the realignment of forces from Okinawa to Guam," a spokesman said.

But Jun Okumura, a Japan specialist at the Eurasia Group in Tokyo, believes the Levin-Webb-McCain proposal is the only way forward. "Unless the Japanese government are hearing something from Okinawan leaders that we don't know about, I'd say the original Futenma plan is dead in the water," he told GlobalPost.

"The senators' plan sounds very reasonable, and I would be surprised if [U.S. Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta wasn't giving it serious consideration."

"It would take 8,000 marines off Okinawa and remove the noisiest jets and significantly reduce the island's military burden in the process. And there would be no need to build a new runway on reclaimed land off the Okinawa coast."

"If Okinawans can live with these improvements and drop their all-or-nothing approach, then it might work. The U.S. military was kicked out of the Philippines, and it survived. The same will happen with Okinawa."