WASHINGTON – U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said on Wednesday that the plan to relocate the marines in Okinawa to Guam might be reviewed in light of recent developments in North Korea and environmental concerns in Guam.
His testimony at the Senate Appropriations Committee suggests the Japan-U.S. agreement to move about 4,000 of the some 19,000 or so marines in Okinawa to Guam and another 5,000 to Hawaii could be subject to change and be delayed.
“The situation, strategically and operationally, as we’ve seen in the news recently, has changed,” Neller said.
“The capabilities of our adversaries have changed, the dynamic there,” he added, apparently referring to North Korea, which has repeatedly test-fired ballistic missiles in defiance of international warnings not to do so.
On May 14, North Korea succeeded in launching a ballistic missile with a potential range of over 4,000 km, which would put Guam within reach.
Neller also disclosed that Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris has “looked at different options for where they might at least temporarily base aircraft because of the evolving threat.”
The marine transfer is part of a broader realignment plan for the U.S. forces in Japan agreed to by Japan and the U.S. around 2012, under which U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be moved from a congested area in Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of Nago. Both are on Okinawa.
The plan also calls for returning to Japan military facilities and sites south of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa and transferring 9,000 U.S. Marines and their families from the prefecture to Guam by the early 2020s.
The top marine officer also indicated his concerns about training and maintaining the readiness of the force in Guam, Tinian and other nearby islands as there are still environmental issues to be considered.
Explaining that the marines have had discussions with the secretary of defense and the Joint Staff, Neller said, “We’re at the very beginning of taking a look at this (the possible revision).”
“For the time being, we’re committed to the plan,” he said.
It is unclear whether the changes under consideration will be minor ones or significant enough to affect the Japan-U.S. agreement.
On Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that he is not aware of such an idea.
“The relocation to Guam remains unchanged and I’m not aware of anything otherwise,” Suga said.
Some Japanese government officials and U.S. military experts have said if the marines in Okinawa cannot be relocated to Guam, they could be relocated to Hawaii or the northern Australian city of Darwin.
A potential review of the relocation plan could spell further delays in relocating U.S. forces out of Okinawa, which has staunchly opposed the military presence in the island prefecture.