WASHINGTON – The chief of the U.S. Marine Corps says that a project to transfer its base in Okinawa is merely behind schedule, reiterating the view of the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific and contradicting the Japanese government’s position on the issue.
The project has been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support by the government of Okinawa,” Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a congressional hearing Wednesday.
Under a bilateral accord, Air Station Futenma is to be relocated to another area of the prefecture in Henoko.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a separate congressional hearing last week that he expected the relocation plan would be delayed by two years until 2025.
The remarks prompted the Japanese government to “protest” to the U.S. side over the admiral’s remarks, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
“We have never told the United States that there will be a delay in the Henoko relocation plan until 2025,” Suga told a parliamentary session, referring to the coastal area where the functions of the airfield in Ginowan is to be relocated.
The Japanese and U.S. governments agreed that the transfer and return of the land currently used for the Futenma base would take place by March 2023 at the earliest.
Neller made the remarks at the Senate Committee on Appropriations in an answer to a question by Sen. Brian Schatz, who said the Futenma relocation work was six to nine months behind.
Tokyo has already begun work on an airfield in the Henoko area, but progress has been hampered by tussles near the site between protesters attempting to block construction and law enforcement authorities.
Tokyo and Washington came up with the relocation plan to reduce the burden on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, but Gov. Takeshi Onaga wants the Futenma base moved outside the island prefecture altogether.
During the committee session, Neller also expressed concerns about the impact of the planned transfer of Marines from Okinawa to Guam on their training.
“We do have concerns about our ability to train once we get there,” Neller said. “We have concerns about the strategic mobility and our ability to move and to go to other areas for training.”
At the same time, Neller stressed that there was no change in the U.S. policy to promote the transfer of Marines based on its agreement with Japan.
“There is a political decision that says the number of Marines is going to be reduced on the island of Okinawa, and so we are still committed to support that and do our part to make that happen,” Neller said.