Futenma base relocation has little hope left

Experts say lack of funding puts paid to transfer of U.S. Marines

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The political games being played in Washington and Tokyo regarding whether the U.S. will fund the transfer of Okinawa-based U.S. Marines to Guam are of no consequence, experts say, because the 2006 plan to relocate the Futenma airbase to Henoko in northern Okinawa Island, which the Guam transfer depends upon, is all but dead.

The U.S. Congress decided earlier this week to cut $150 million from the fiscal 2012 budget that was earmarked for the planned transfer of 8,000 marines and roughly an equal number of their dependents to Guam by 2014, following the construction of a replacement base for Futenma at Henoko. But Congress’ decision is yet another nail in the coffin of the Futenma plan, experts say.

“My fundamental conclusion is that the Henoko project is virtually dead,” said Peter Ennis, U.S. correspondent of Weekly Toyo Keizai and the author of the Dispatch Japan blog. “For the first time, I’m also hearing from senior Japanese Foreign Ministry officials that the project is dead.”

After the cuts were announced, Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, told visiting Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara in Washington on Tuesday that if Japan presented its environmental impact assessment report on Henoko by the end of this year, Congress might reconsider approving at least some money.

However, Ennis and Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, say the mood in Congress makes that prospect dim, especially given that three powerful senators, Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb, are strongly opposed to the Henoko agreement.

“With broad defense cuts due across the board, it’s highly unlikely money will flow to the relocation plan,” Smith said. “The time has come and gone for fiscal year 2012 discussions to be reopened. The bigger question is how to move forward.”

Ennis said: “The vast majority of congressional members are deferring to the judgment of the three senators. And they are, for different reasons, really committed to stopping this project.

“Levin is motivated by the need for budget cuts, as it’s cheaper to have the 8,000 marines return to California. Webb, as a marine veteran, thinks marines should be on ships or on bases ready to move at a moment’s notice, and there is no need for expensive family facilities on Guam. McCain agrees with both,” he added.

As for the impact of the budget cuts on Tokyo and Okinawa, Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations and director of the International Institute for Okinawan Studies at the University of the Ryukyus, said there were two possibilities.

The cuts could put pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to go through with the Henoko plan, or he may just maintain the status quo, which is to do nothing.

“Between now and February, we’ll know whether or not Noda will carry out the Henoko relocation plan. But the Noda administration’s desire to go through with the deal is scant, so even in February, it’s possible the project could be halted,” Gabe said.

With the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election slated for next June, there are some in the U.S. and Tokyo who are hoping voters will elect a probase majority, putting pressure on Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to accept the plan. But the assembly chairman, Zenshin Takamine, who met with Sens. Levin and Webb in Okinawa earlier this year, said that was wishful thinking.

“The Okinawa assembly has unanimously called on Japan and the U.S. to relocate Futenma outside Okinawa, and those opposed include LDP members. Many other towns and villages in Okinawa have also passed resolutions against the Henoko plan and are calling for the relocation of Futenma outside of Okinawa. Going forward with the Henoko move in the face of such opposition would actually further damage Japan’s relations with the U.S.,” Takamine said.