Bloomberg News

Okinawa Marines Move Delayed as U.S., Japan Revamp Base Plan

June 21, 2011

(Updates with Senator Webb’s comments in 14th paragraph.)

June 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Japan will delay the relocation of an American air base to a less-crowded part of Okinawa, as both nations struggle with a plan to move thousands of Marines and their families to new locations including Guam.

The two countries agreed today to extend their timeline due to a lack of progress caused, in part, by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with their counterparts, Minister of Foreign Affairs Takeaki Matsumoto and Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa, in Washington.

The ministers “confirmed their commitment to complete the above projects at the earliest possible date after 2014 in order to avoid the indefinite use” of the existing air station, according to a joint statement released after the meeting.

As part of a 2006 agreement, 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents are to be transferred almost 1,500 miles south to Guam. By 2014, the Futenma Air Base would also have moved north to a new facility at Camp Schwab.

Construction has yet to begin even as Japan committed $6.09 billion toward the relocation agreement and the U.S. said it would pay for the rest of the $10 billion

“Japan has dragged its feet for almost two years and we’ve had a struggle to get back to square one,” said Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea branch.

Public Opinion

In Japan, public opinion has grown increasingly intolerant of the almost 50,000 military personnel living in the country, mainly on Okinawa. Still, both nations want to maintain regional security as China displays growing military ambition in the Pacific.

At stake is a five-decade old alliance, forged after World War II, and a realignment plan that took 13 years of diplomacy to get signed.

“During the past year or two with a more evident North Korean and Chinese threat,” the Democratic Party of Japan, which won its first national election in 2009, has reversed “many of its naive policies,” said Klingner. “We hope to see Tokyo now step up to the plate.”

Complicating matters in the U.S. is the decision by the Senate Armed Services Committee to block funding for the relocation of Marines amid concern that the plan is too expensive.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a May 25 report that the total cost of the realignment could be $29.1 billion. That figure is based on a 2006 study by the Japanese government.

‘Unrealistic, Unworkable’

On May 11, three senators called the relocation agreement “unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable” and suggested it would be cheaper to move assets to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, instead of building an air base from scratch.

They also propose the relocation of some of Kadena’s units out of the country. The three are Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the the Senate Armed Services Committee; Arizona Republican John McCain, the committee’s ranking minority member; and Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for East Asia and the Pacific.

After today’s meeting, Webb said his concerns about the costs and feasibility of the administration’s plan still need to be addressed before Congress releases funds.

The senators’ alternative plan “has been looked at many times and rejected a number of times,” Klingner said in a telephone interview. “Would it save money? No, it would rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Prime Ministers Resigning

In Japan, which has had five leaders in as many years, Okinawa is a politically charged issue that has already cost one prime minister his job. Yukio Hatoyama, who became the DPJ’s first prime minister in 2009, was forced to resign after nine months when he backed down from a campaign pledge to move a U.S. military base from the island of Okinawa.

His successor, Naoto Kan, has said he will resign after his government passes a second disaster spending plan in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that caused the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

In view of the nuclear meltdown, the U.S. may be open to renegotiating Japan’s pledge, to ease the Asian nation’s financial recovery from this year’s natural disasters, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said on April 29.

The U.S. Defense Department and representatives from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands signed an agreement on March 9 to begin the move of forces that will relocate away from Japan. Two days later, Japan was struck by a 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that also damaged a nuclear power plant.

--With assistance from Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in Washington at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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