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Futenma shift, Marines move rapidly losing steam

Date Posted: 2011-12-23

The United States Congress has been wielding a sharp budget-cutting knife this week, and both the monetary reductions and the verbiage stemming from Capitol Hill do not bode well for the military’s plans for Okinawa.

The Congress has chopped $150 million in funding from a bill that was to provide the foundation for transferring some 8,000 U.S. Marines and their 9,000 family members to Guam. That move has sent chills over military planners who viewed the Marines’ move as a key part of the package that involves relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Ginowan City in central Okinawa to a site on a U.S. Marine Corps installation in northern Okinawa, with a pair of V-shape runways extending into adjacent Oura Bay.

Opposition to the relocation within Okinawa Prefecture is high, and a requirement for an environmental assessment report for the relocation is now a political hot potato. Japan’s central government insists it’s almost ready to submit the plan to Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, but that’s questionable. Equally questionable is whether the governor would even examine the document before tossing it into a trashcan.

The entire Futenma issue is at the heart of Congress’ decision to eliminate funding for the Guam side of the Marines’ planned move. The two governments have given it a green light, but there’s barely lukewarm approval of the concept in Okinawa, where political parties, the Prefecture and the Prefecture Assembly have already taken anti-Futenma relocation stances.

Further compounding the difficulty of a possible Futenma move to Henoko in northern Okinawa are the voices of three U.S. senators who've been to the island and know its problems firsthand. Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and James Webb of Virginia, and Republican John McCain of Arizona, all oppose moving Futenma north. Instead, they’re leading proponents of closing Futenma and relocating its activities to Kadena Air Base.

The Air Force objects, and for that matter, so do the Marines. That hasn’t stopped Washington from weighing in on the issue though, with a variety of options bantered about that call for moving some Marine elements to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in mainland Japan, moving helicopters to Kadena, moving some Air Force jets to other bases in the Pacific, and total integration of the two bases at Kadena.

As the U.S. Congress signaled dissatisfaction with the relocations from Okinawa to Guam, Japan’s central government has begun doing likewise. The Defense and Finance ministries say they’re planning to cut the ¥52 billion allocated for the current budget down to less than ¥10 billion in the fiscal year ahead. In 2006, Japan agreed to foot the bill for $6.09 billion of the projected $10.27 billion in Guam relocation costs. The confusion coming from Washington, coupled with Japan’s efforts to come up with money to pay for massive recovery costs from the March 11th Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, has money tight.

A Washington spokesman says America “remains committed” to making the realignment in Japan happen, noting “doing so will enhance the alliance during a critical period while significantly reducing the impact of U.s. bases on the Okinawan people.”

A Democratic congressman has yet another take on what should be done in Okinawa. “I do think we could remove the Marines from Okinawa, whose only purpose has been to destabilize Japanese politics,” says Rep. Barney Franks of Massachusetts. Franks says “when the alternative government to the conservative regime got elected, we caused them trouble.”

The retiring Democratic leader says “we don’t need 15,000 Marines in Okinawa. They’re a hangover from a war that ended 65 years ago.” He supports a task force plan that calls for cutting nearly $1 trillion over the next decade, including a reduction plan for U.S. forces in Asia.

Other voices are saying similar things. “My fundamental conclusion is that the Henoko project is virtually dead,” is how Peter Ennis, the U.S. correspondent for Weekly Toyo Keizai describes it. “For the first time,” he says, “I’m also hearing from senior Japanese Foreign Ministry officials that the project is dead.

Professor Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations and director of the International Institute for Okinawan Studies at the University of the Ryukyus, says there are only two possibilities now. Cuts announced already could pressure Prime Minister Yoishihiko Noda to continue with plans, or to maintain the status quo. “Between now and February we will know whether or not Noda will carry out the Henoko plan, but his administration’s desire to go through with the deal is scant,” says Gabe, “so it’s possible the project could be halted.”

Even the opposition Liberal Democratic Party is beginning to take stances against Futenma’s relocation within Okinawa, and local towns and villages have begun passing resolutions against the Henoko plan.

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