U.S. realignment report postponed

Staff Report, Kyodo

Japan and the U.S. postponed a Wednesday joint statement on the return of five U.S. bases and facilities in Okinawa after three influential U.S. Senators expressed concern over a lack of cost estimates and how the agreement fits into the broader U.S. strategy for the region.

The joint statement was to have been issued Wednesday, four days before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was due to visit Washington for a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.

It was to call on the U.S. to immediately return a number of districts in Okinawa where bases, including Camp Zukeran (Camp Foster), are located.

While the two countries put off announcing the interim accord, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo that the document will be jointly released “at the latest before the prime minister’s U.S. trip.”

Other districts in Chatan, where a U.S. Army tank facility is located, as well as the Makiminato Service Area’s warehouse district, would eventually be returned after their operations are relocated to other U.S. bases.

In addition, Japan and the U.S. have agreed to build facilities on Guam and in the Northern Mariana Islands for future joint training exercises, with Japan contributing to their construction costs.

But U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, John McCain, an Arizone Republican, and Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, criticized the plan Tuesday, saying it was vague.

“We require additional information regarding how this proposal relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region, the Marine Corps’ concept of operations, master plans, and alternatives to base realignments on Guam and Okinawa, as well as the positioning of U.S. Air Force units in the Asia-Pacific region,” the three senators said in an open letter sent to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“We also remain concerned about the absence of firm cost estimates informed by basing plans, an analysis of logistical requirements, and environmental studies related to this new agreement. A recent visit by Senator Webb to Okinawa was characterized by a less-than-forthcoming series of responses from U.S. government officials. Any announcement beyond an agreement in principle at this time would be premature and could have the unintended consequences of creating more difficulties for our important alliance,” the letter said.

Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka told reporters both sides are working on the forthcoming bilateral statement with “no change to the agreed details.”

In the document on the reorganization of U.S. forces, Japan and the United States are expected to refer to planned repair work at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa and Tokyo’s sharing of the costs necessary for implementing the work.

In the document, Washington and Tokyo will reaffirm their plan to proceed with the relocation of the Futenma base within Okinawa.

Efforts to relocate Futenma from a crowded residential district in Ginowan to the less-populated area in Nago, in line with a 2006 bilateral accord, have long been stalled due to strong local opposition.

Levin, McCain and Webb were the ones who last year called the current Futenma relocation plan unrealistic and not cost-effective.

“Congress has important oversight and funding responsibilities beyond its traditional consultative role for this basing agreement, and any new proposal should not be considered final until it has the support of the Congress,” the three senators said in a separate press statement.

At the same time, the three senators and all other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee welcomed the upcoming visit of Noda to Washington from Sunday.

The senators said they remain committed to working with the U.S. administration to reach “a mutually beneficial, militarily effective and fiscally sustainable agreement” on the realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa and Guam and that Noda’s visit is “an important opportunity to make additional progress toward this goal.”