The U.S. military will probably scale back plans to build key bases in Japan and Guam because of political obstacles and budget pressures, according to U.S. and Japanese officials, complicating the Obama administration’s efforts to strengthen the presence of U.S. forces in Asia.
Under a deal announced Wednesday with Japanese officials, the U.S. government said it will accelerate plans to withdraw 8,000 marines from Okinawa. The decision came after several years of stalled talks to find a site for a new marine base nearby.
Washington’s inability to resolve its basing arrangements in Okinawa, as well as the rising price tag of a related plan for a $23 billion military buildup on Guam, underscore the challenges facing the Obama administration as it seeks to make a strategic “pivot” toward the Pacific after a decade of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Key developments in Futenma issue
September 1995 — Three U.S. servicemen rape a schoolgirl in Okinawa, fueling anger among local people.
April 1996 — Japan and the United States agree on moving the Futenma base from Ginowan to somewhere else in Okinawa within five to seven years. The site in Ginowan is to revert back to Japan.
December 1999 — The central government endorses a plan to move Futenma’s operations to the Henoko coast in Nago, Okinawa.
July 2002 — The central government agrees with local governments in Okinawa on a basic construction plan to fill in areas off Henoko to build a new runway.
May 2006 — Japan and the United States agree on a road map for the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, featuring a package plan to build runways in Henoko to replace Futenma and transfer about 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam, both by 2014.
September 2009 — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama indicates he is willing to move Futenma out of Okinawa.
May 2010 — Japan and the United States reach a fresh accord on the Futenma relocation, effectively on par with the 2006 accord.
June 2010 — Hatoyama resigns. Naoto Kan becomes prime minister and pledges to implement the bilateral accord reached in May.
June 2011 — Japan and the United States reaffirm the plan to build Futenma’s replacement in Henoko but drop the target of completing the move by 2014.
December 2011 — The central government submits an environmental impact assessment report to Okinawa Prefecture saying the relocation plan doesn’t not pose any “particular problem” for the environment.
Feb. 8, 2012 — Japan and the United States announce they are discussing revisions to the realignment plan, including separating the redeployment of marines to Guam and the Futenma relocation, as well as reviewing the number of marines to be moved to Guam.
U.S. military officials had planned to relocate the 8,000 marines and their families to Guam in 2014 as part of a massive military expansion on the U.S. territory in the Pacific. Japanese officials and media reported, however, that only 4,700 of the marines would end up on Guam, a sign that the Pentagon is reconsidering its plans there.
The administration has moved on a series of fronts to bolster the U.S. military presence in Asia and the Pacific recently. Officials reached a deal with Australia to deploy a small number of marines to Darwin and are holding talks with the Philippines about expanding military ties.
Those moves, along with an agreement to station navy ships in Singapore, are part of a broader strategy aimed at countering China’s rising influence in the region. Although the Obama administration wants to retain the bulk of U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan, where they have maintained a heavy presence since World War II and the Korean War, officials said they are looking to expand their presence in Southeast Asia.
“We are diversifying our strategic and military approach,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, told a House subcommittee Tuesday. “We will keep a strong commitment in Northeast Asia, but we will focus more of our attention in Southeast Asia.”
George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military is reviewing its options on where to transfer the 8,000 marines from Japan. “It’s premature to discuss troop numbers or specific locations,” he said Wednesday.
Congress has also questioned the cost of the Guam expansion, which could cost as much as $23 billion, and has ordered the Obama administration to take another look. Lawmakers have also asked the Pentagon to conduct an independent assessment of its overall deployment plans and forces presence in the Pacific region.
Return of land sought
Okinawa residents called for the early return of land occupied by the U.S. military south of the Kadena air base, following Wednesday’s announcement that Tokyo and Washington will revise a bilateral accord on realigning American forces in Japan.