WASHINGTON – Leon Panetta, nominated to succeed Robert Gates as U.S. defense secretary, indicated Thursday in a congressional panel hearing that he will decide whether to review a plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan, including the relocation of the Futenma base within Okinawa, after assuming his new post.
Panetta said he is willing to work with Congress “to determine what the best and most cost-effective approach would be,” in response to a question from Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee.
“We do have to maintain a presence there,” he said.
Responding to a question from Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, Panetta said he knows the relocation is “not an easy issue . . . but it absolutely has to be addressed.”
Despite strong opposition in Okinawa, Japan and the United States are clinging to a policy of moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a residential area in Ginowan to the less densely populated coastal area of Henoko in Nago, both on Okinawa Island.
But it is now accepted that the 2014 deadline for completing the realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa will not be met due to a stalemate in negotiations between Tokyo and the prefecture.
Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, has proposed integrating the Futenma base into the U.S. Kadena Air Base, also in Okinawa, saying the current relocation plan is unrealistic.
In written testimony submitted to the panel, Panetta, currently director of the CIA, said he plans to review U.S. forces in Asia, while stressing Washington’s continuing commitment to ensure security, economic development and prosperity in the region.
“If confirmed, I will review the Defense Department’s posture in Asia and make appropriate recommendations on any enhancements,” he said.
Panetta said that North Korea, through its ballistic missiles and nuclear threat, “poses a growing and direct threat to the United States, our allies in the region, and to the international community.”
The CIA chief said he will monitor the situation closely and maintain the military capability necessary to protect U.S. interests, defend its allies and deter Pyongyang from acts of aggression and intimidation.
Panetta was also critical of China’s growing military power. “The pace and scale of China’s military modernization, coupled with the lack of transparency, raised many questions,” he noted.
China appears to be strengthening its military capability, with its near-term focus on potential contingencies involving Taiwan, including possible U.S. military intervention, Panetta said.
He also said China is building up its nuclear deterrence and strategic strike capabilities through the modernization of its nuclear weapons and improvement of computer network operations.
On Afghanistan, he said he supports Gate’s policy to start pulling U.S. forces out of the country in July.
Panetta is expected to take the helm at the Pentagon on July 1.
China warships monitored
Japan will continue to keep close tabs on the movements of Chinese warships with “serious concern” after 11 navy vessels crossed into the Pacific between Okinawa and Miyako islands this week, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said Friday.
“Our country’s policy is to keep monitoring Chinese naval vessels with serious concern and gather information,” Kitazawa told a news conference.
He said a similar incident occurred last year, and actions of this kind by Chinese naval vessels near Okinawa have been frequent since 2008.
“We should be concerned about whether they would go beyond that or not,” he said.
The vessels’ passage does not violate international law.