Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has asserted that a Japan-U.S. agreement struck in February will help resolve the issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which now sits in the middle of densely populated Ginowan City in the central part of Okinawa Island.
But there is the possibility that the agreement will only perpetuate the current situation surrounding not only the Futenma air station but also five U.S. military facilities in the southern part of the island, which the U.S. is supposed to return to Japan. There is a hint of falsification and deception in bilateral talks on the Okinawan base issues.
In 2006, Tokyo and Washington agreed on a package that included relocation of the Futenma functions to Henoko in Nago City in the northern part of Okinawa Island, the transfer of portions of the Okinawa-based U.S. Marines to Guam and reversion of the five American facilities located south of the Kadena Air Base to Japan.
In February this year, however, the two governments issued a Joint Statement on Defense Posture, calling for, among other things, “delinking both the movement of marines to Guam and resulting land returns south of Kadena from progress on the Futenma Replacement Facility.”
The ulterior motive of the U.S. is to hang on to the land provided by Japan in Okinawa and to squeeze as much money as possible from Japan, while moving some military units abroad that it needed to move abroad, including some 4,700 marines to Guam. The Japanese public is not aware of this because the mass media report only the information released by the government without questioning it.
The U.S. aim is to move marines now concentrated in Okinawa to other parts of the Pacific region that are neither too close nor too far away from China and disperse them in order to deter China’s rapidly rising military might and to minimize potential risks from Chinese missile attacks.
Efforts in this direction, however, have been hindered by the 2006 agreement, which called for the simultaneous transfer of the Futenma functions to Henoko and the transfer of marines to Guam.
Although the February accord called for delinking the two issues, it could only result in the Futenma air station remaining where it is rather than relocating as Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba has insisted.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is asking Japan to bear more of the cost to transfer marines from Okinawa to Guam. Under a pact signed in 2009, the total transfer cost was set at $10.27 billion, of which Japan was to bear $6.09 billion and the U.S. $4.18 billion. The cost that Japan has to bear is $2.8 billion in direct spending by the Japanese government and $3.29 billion offered in the form of loans. But the U.S., citing rising costs, has made a new demand that the Japanese government spending portion be increased to $4.2 billion.
Japan has judged that there is no choice but to accede to the American demand in view of the fact that Tokyo has failed to live up to the 2006 pledge of enabling the relocation the Futenma functions to Henoko due to strong local opposition, and that Japan is heavily dependent on the U.S. defense umbrella in connection with the North Korean missile issue.
Under the U.S. military realignment plan, the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a highly mobile unit consisting of some 2,200 troops, will remain in Okinawa. But the U.S. has aired the idea of moving some 5,000 ground fighting troops of the 3rd Marine Division out of Okinawa to foreign locations, including Guam. This means lowering deterrence. In addition, the 31st MEU will be deployed at sea for about half the year.
Ground-fighting troops of the 3rd MD are those who will board helicopters at Futenma if an emergency situation develops. Because they will move outside Okinawa, the number of helicopters stationed at Futenma is likely to go down. Yet, the U.S. will likely insist on keeping the same number of helicopters “registered” with the Futenma air station. That’s because it wants to protect its vested interests in the land and the money.
Thus the U.S. has insisted time and again that any further delay in the relocation of the Futenma functions to Henoko will necessitate a thorough renovation of the Futenma facilities and that Japan should bear the entire cost. Indeed, at an early stage of the bilateral talks, the U.S. gave Japan a detailed plan describing the renovation plan, which would take nearly a decade, as well as a cost estimate totaling tens of billions of yen.
Even if Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approves land reclamation off Henoko to build the Futenma replacement facility, construction work would take about five years. So, the fact that the Futenma renovation under the U.S. plan would take nearly 10 years shows that the U.S. is determined to maintain the Futenma base for a long time because the relocation to Henoko is perceived as unrealistic.
Contrary to their official stance, a predominant view in the Japanese and the U.S. government is that relocation in any foreseeable future is unlikely and that the Futenma functions will inevitably continue to remain where they are.
A mayoral election will be held in Nago in January 2014 and a gubernatorial election for Okinawa Prefecture in November that year. But there is no guarantee that candidates favoring the relocation to Henoko will win. Even if such candidates win, opponents of the relocation plan are a majority in both municipal and prefectural assemblies. Hoping for every factor to turn favorable for the relocation to Henoko would be as unrealistic as waiting for the sun and a number of its planets to form a straight line configuration in “syzygy astronomy.” In short, the relocation plan itself is as dead as a doornail.
If the U.S. goes ahead unilaterally with transferring marine ground combat units from Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere, that will lower Japan’s deterrence — a setback for Japan’s defense under the U.S. umbrella. Even if the number of helicopters at Futenma is reduced, the air station will continue to sit in the middle of crowded Ginowan City.
Besides, no progress can be seen in the reversion of the five facilities south of Kadena Air Base. At the same time, Japan will have no choice except to keep on paying in the form of “host nation support” for the U.S. This will in turn enable the U.S. to maintain the land it now occupies and secure funds from Japan — the kernel of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
A majority of Japanese citizens are unaware that, under this arrangement, Japan has very little to gain. This unfortunate situation stems from the mass media’s one-sided reporting of announcements from the government.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.