WASHINGTON – Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel has praised Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s decision to allow the relocation of the Futenma air base to move forward, calling it a “milestone” for relations with Japan.
Hagel on Friday welcomed the approval of the long-delayed transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and said it would permit a redeployment of American forces in the area, bolstering Washington’s strategic “re-balance” to the Asia-Pacific region.
“Reaching this milestone is a clear demonstration to the region that the alliance is capable of handling complex, difficult problems in order to deal effectively with 21st century security challenges,” Hagel said in a statement.
“Our alliance has helped underwrite regional peace, stability, and prosperity for more than half a century, and resolving these years-long issues will enable us to take our relationship to the next level as we revise the guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation,” he said.
After over 17 years of debate and political wrangling, the Okinawa Prefectural Government finally gave the green light to moving the air station from densely populated Ginowan to a new coastal facility to be built further north in Nago.
Hagel said he told Japanese officials that the Pentagon was “committed to working with the government of Japan to build a strong and sustainable U.S. military presence with less impact on the people of Okinawa.”
Relocating the unpopular air base is part of a plan to reduce the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa. The Pentagon plans to reduce the number of marines in the prefecture to around 10,000 from 18,000 in coming years, with some redeployed to Australia and the U.S. territory of Guam.
Resolving the future of the Futenma base clears the way for Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, with plans to deploy more ships and troops in the Pacific.
“The realignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States’ ongoing re-balance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable force posture in the region,” Hagel said.
The strategy is designed to counter China’s expanding military presence and influence in the Pacific, amid growing tensions over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.
U.S. defense officials called Nakaima’s decision a landmark step that eliminated the final political hurdle to the relocation plan and a time-consuming issue from bilateral ties. “It opens up the bandwidth at a senior level for other issues to be discussed,” said one such official.