WASHINGTON – The U.S. Congress decided Tuesday to lift a freeze on funding needed to transfer some Marines from Okinawa to Guam, a move that could reduce the U.S. military’s giant footprint on the island.
The Armed Services committees of the Senate and House of Representatives agreed to ensure the passage of bills for the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes an outline of defense budgetary plans.
The act for fiscal 2015, which began on Oct. 1, is expected to clear the House this week and the Senate next week, congressional sources say.
The U.S. and Japanese governments plan to transfer around 4,000 of the 19,000 Marines stationed on the island prefecture to Guam based on a bilateral agreement, with Japan shouldering up to $2.8 billion of the $8.6 billion cost estimated for the move.
Tokyo and Washington are also working on relocating Futenma air station, a major Marine facility in Okinawa, from a densely populated area to a coastal site.
“We welcome the developments that have taken place in the U.S. Congress,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko said Thursday at a press conference in Tokyo.
The transfer of those Marines to Guam “will ease the burden on Okinawa, for instance in terms of the return of land located south of Kadena (air base), and at the same time maintain the U.S. forces’ deterrence capabilities,” Seko said. “We will continue to work closely toward an early transfer.”
Congress had frozen most of the funding under the act for fiscal 2014, questioning the feasibility of the transfer. The Senate had earlier sought to keep the freeze for fiscal 2015.
The committees agreed to set a ceiling of $8.7 billion on the transfer cost.
To address the Senate’s concern about the cost, the Defense Department submitted a transfer master plan for the troops earlier this year.
Japan and the U.S. agreed to transfer Marines from Okinawa to Guam and relocate the airfield as part of the U.S. plan to realign military forces in the Asia-Pacific area and bilateral bids to help Okinawa, which already hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
It has been 18 years since both governments first agreed to relocate the Futenma base within the prefecture. The 1996 deal was consistently opposed by residents. Critics said it fell short of their demands to eject U.S. troops altogether.