It’s a deal that’s been more than 15 years in the making and the unmaking. The United States and Japan have been struggling since the 1990s to transform the U.S. military presence on the island of Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan.
In preparation for this week’s visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Washington, the two sides rolled out the latest attempt to resolve what has grown into a major sticking point in alliance relations.
According to the most recent deal, 9,000 U.S. Marines will leave Okinawa, thus fulfilling a longstanding U.S. promise to reduce the overall military footprint on the island. Half of that number will go to expanded facilities on Guam while the remainder will rotate through other bases in the region, including Australia, the Philippines, and Hawaii.
Japan will cover a little more than three billion dollars out of the estimated 8.6-billion-dollar cost of the Guam transfer.
“These adjustments are necessary to realize a U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable,” according to a joint statement issued by Washington and Tokyo.
The deal confirms an earlier decision to separate two key components of the Pacific realignment, namely the transfer of some Marines away from Okinawa and the construction of a replacement facility to house the Marines that remain behind.
The current location of the Marines, the Futenma air base in Ginowan City, is both outdated and, because of the city’s growth over the years, increasingly hazardous for the surrounding civilian population.
“The decision to decouple finding a Futenma replacement from the move of Marines to Guam and elsewhere has relieved some of the pent-up pressure in the U.S.-Japan alliance,” observes Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security.
“Building a second runway at Camp Schwab is still unlikely to happen anytime soon, if ever, but the alliance can now move forward with more closely integrating U.S. and Japan Self-Defense Forces.”
Steve Clemons, long-time Japan observer and editor-at-large at The Atlantic, characterises the agreement as a case of the Japanese no. “They say, ‘it is very difficult,’ but they don’t actually say no,” he says. “This agreement allows the Japanese no to happen without Japan explicitly saying no to its strategic partner.”
The transfer of the Marines has considerable support on Okinawa and Japan more generally. It has, however, generated concerns in the U.S. Congress, particularly over costs. At the end of 2011, Congress removed all the funding connected to the Guam transfer in the 2012 military spending bill, pending completion of an independent review.
Key critics of the process of Pacific realignment – including John McCain, Carl Levin and Jim Webb – remain sceptical of the latest agreement since the review has not yet been completed.
Also sceptical are anti-base activists in the places where the Marine presence will increase.
“Hawaii does not need more military,” says Koohan Paik, a media professor at Kauai Community College.
“There are already 161 military installations in Hawaii, which have resulted in hundreds of sites contaminated with PCBs, trichloroethylene, jet fuel and diesel, mercury, lead, radioactive Cobalt 60, unexploded ordnance, perchlorate, and depleted uranium. And they call this security? The only ‘security’ this brings is economic security to military contractors.”
The second part of the deal, the construction of a replacement facility for Futenma, remains as challenging as before. Okinawans have consistently opposed the construction of a new facility on the island. Although only one percent of Japan’s total landmass, Okinawa already houses nearly 75 percent of the entire U.S. base presence.
Polls indicate that at least 80 percent of Okinawans oppose relocating the facility on their island. In Henoko, where the government in Tokyo has proposed to expand the existing Camp Schwab to accommodate the Marines from Futenma, activists have maintained a sit-in protest since 1996. They have argued that the new construction would, among other things, compromise an already endangered species of dugong, a large sea mammal.
Okinawans have not been enthusiastic about any of the other options that would keep the Marines on the island, including the expansion of the existing Air Force base at Kadena. According to Clemons, the Kadena option also runs up against inter-service rivalry, with the Marines and the Air Force unwilling to make the necessary compromises to share the space.
“We’re going to have a low-yield ulcer that will continue indefinitely,” observes Clemons. “We’ll burn through another 10 years with Henoko not built until finally a future presidential administration will pull the plug.”
The latest U.S.-Japan deal comes at a time of considerable uncertainty regarding military spending. The Pentagon is under pressure to reduce costs in order to meet new spending limits dictated by concerns over rising national debt.
However, the Barack Obama administration’s “Pacific pivot”, announced last year, is difficult to achieve on the cheap. U.S. allies are concerned that they will have to shoulder an increasing amount of the costs of this realignment. Included in this bill will be the cost of upgrading the Futenma facility while Tokyo and Washington debate the base’s future.
“There are serious and legitimate questions about the strategic underpinnings of the dispersal of U.S. forces in small numbers to disparate territories,” says Cronin. “There are also contradictory trends between trying to preserve a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the real trend lines in spending on serious naval and air forces.”