The United States has sounded out Japan on the idea of transferring about 1,500 U.S. marines based in Okinawa Prefecture to Iwakuni air base in Yamaguchi Prefecture as part of a broader plan to review the realignment plan for U.S. forces, sources close to Japan-U.S. relations said Monday.
Those 1,500 marines represent nearly half of the 3,300 or so Okinawa marines that Washington is considering moving to other Pacific areas instead of Guam — the sole destination for transferring around 8,000 Okinawa marines under a 2006 bilateral accord, the sources said.
The U.S. government has proposed relocating about 4,700 marines from Okinawa to Guam, about 1,500 to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, and the remaining 1,800 to other places in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Hawaii and Australia, the sources said.
The transfer of around 8,000 marines and their 9,000 or so dependents from Okinawa to Guam was a pillar of the 2006 bilateral accord on realigning U.S. forces in Japan. The plan was linked to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from Ginowan to less populated Nago, both in Okinawa Prefecture.
A change in the Guam transfer plan is likely to impact the future of the Futenma relocation plan, which has been stymied for well over a decade by strong opposition in Okinawa, where residents want the base removed from the prefecture.
According to the sources, Japan is expected to open talks with government leaders in Yamaguchi and Iwakuni on the proposal to base more marines at Iwakuni Air Station.
Iwakuni’s residents are likely to protest because the 2006 accord also includes plans to accommodate carrier-borne fighter jets from the U.S. Navy’s Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, and aerial tankers based at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The sources said the transfer to Iwakuni would likely involve a unit that is involved in providing air support for Okinawa-based marines but not directly linked to a helicopter unit already stationed at Futenma.
If the Iwakuni transfer goes through, it would mean that the reduction in the number of marines being hosted by Japan could conceivably turn out to be smaller than the reduction planned under the 2006 accord signed by both countries.
The two nations also intend to hold talks with a view on altering a Japanese-U.S. pact that stipulates the costs to be shouldered by the Japanese government, the sources said, adding that Tokyo may have to bear an additional share of the costs.
Japan agreed with the United States in 2006 to pay $6.09 billion of the $10.27 billion estimated for the Guam relocation costs.
The U.S., in keeping with a new defense strategy unveiled last month that focuses more on the Asia-Pacific region, has stepped up efforts to boost the capability of its military, mainly the navy and the marines.
Okinawans have long complained about noise and safety issues regarding the Futenma base.