(Updates with Japan’s environmental assessment in 23rd paragraph.)
Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama plans to curtail a plan costing as much as $21.1 billion to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Guam and instead will rotate some of the Marines through the Asia-Pacific region, people familiar with the matter said.
The administration now intends to send about 4,500 U.S. Marines stationed in Japan to Guam and to rotate an additional 4,000 through Australia, Subic Bay and perhaps a smaller base in the Philippines and Hawaii, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the plan hasn’t been announced.
The U.S. is realigning forces in the Asia-Pacific as the Obama administration refocuses attention on the region after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the Pentagon is seeking to cut about $490 billion from projected defense spending over a decade.
Some of the Marines going to Guam under the administration’s revised plan will be based in the U.S. territory in the Pacific temporarily, known as on rotation, instead of being permanently stationed there, the people said.
As part of a 2006 agreement with Japan, 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents were to be transferred from Okinawa in Japan almost 1,500 miles (2,413 kilometers) south to Guam by 2014.
Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, a Democrat who represents Guam in the U.S. Congress, cautioned against depending too much on a temporary presence.
“There must be a balance between a robust permanent presence of Marines as well as a rotational component,” she said yesterday in an e-mail. “It’s foolish to believe a rotational component would save any money in the long run.”
The Pentagon considers Guam “an essential part of our larger Asia-Pacific strategy,” Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said yesterday in an e-mail. “We are committed to developing Guam as a strategic hub and to establishing an operational Marine Corps presence on Guam by relocating some Marines from Okinawa to Guam.”
“Recognizing the budget realities here, as well as the environmental challenges we face on Guam, the department is considering options that will fulfill our regional commitments most efficiently and effectively,” Hull-Ryde said.
The Obama administration’s change in plans on locating forces in Guam also follows objections in the U.S. Senate over the cost of building infrastructure in the island territory.
“I do appreciate that this administration takes seriously the concerns of Congress and I urge them to address those concerns so we can move forward with the build-up,” Bordallo said in the e-mail statement.
In May, three senators called on the Pentagon to re-examine military basing plans in East Asia, saying billions of dollars may be saved in South Korea, Japan and Guam.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, joined Senators John McCain of Arizona, the panel’s senior Republican, and Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the personnel subcommittee, in calling for reducing the planned Marine Corps expansion on Guam.
Instead, the lawmakers called for rotating combat units based elsewhere and for examining the feasibility of moving Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, Japan, to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, while avoiding building a replacement facility. Local officials have complained about noise, pollution and safety issues at Futenma.
In approving the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 budget, Congress blocked funding for the relocation of Marines to Guam until the Defense Department provided a master plan. The Pentagon had to consider “alternatives that may provide the needed Marine forward presence at much less expense,” McCain said in a Senate speech in September.
McCain said at the time that he expected the redeployment of forces from Japan to Guam to cost $18 billion to $23 billion. The Government Accountability Office estimated in a June 27, 2011 report the cost of the Guam military buildup to be about $23.9 billion, including the $21.1 billion U.S. share as well as contributions from Japan.
Alternatives to Guam, especially in other countries, may prove more expensive over time, Guam’s Republican Governor Eddie Baza Calvo said in an e-mail.
“Guam is the perfect place for the buildup,” he said. “We are the closest U.S. community to Asia.” Unlike “many foreign countries and even some U.S. communities, we welcome an increased military presence.”
The Obama administration’s plans to move forces out of Japan no longer are contingent on progress in building a new site for the Futenma air station on Okinawa, according to the people familiar with the plan. The change may require renegotiating existing agreements with Japan, they said.
The initial agreement to move some U.S. forces from Japan to Guam was contingent on progress in building a new facility to shift the Futenma air station to a less populated part of Okinawa.
In February 2009, the U.S. and Japan agreed that the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s relocation to Guam is dependent on “tangible progress” by Japan toward the completion of a replacement for the Futenma air station on Okinawa, according to the GAO.
By 2014, the Futenma air station is scheduled to move north to a new facility at Camp Schwab in northeastern Okinawa. Japan committed to provide as much as $6.09 billion to fund the move of some forces to Guam and replace Futenma.
In December, Japan submitted to Okinawa’s local government an environmental assessment of moving Futenma to a new facility. Hull-Ryde, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said the report “demonstrates a serious effort to move ahead.”
Japan is expected to recoup as much as $3.3 billion of the Guam relocation cost over time in the form of repayments from the U.S. government and rents paid by the Marines through their housing allowances, according to the GAO.
The Obama administration already is engaged in discussions with Philippines and Australia as it seeks to realign forces in the region.
One objective is to maintain a significant U.S. force west of the International Dateline, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss the administration’s plans publicly.
Last month, Philippine officials said they were seeking closer ties with the U.S. including “rotating and more frequent” military presence to deter China from operating in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Some Philippine politicians are seeking a greater American presence at Subic Bay, a large U.S. naval base during the Vietnam War, as a way to create jobs in the nearby city of Olangapo, the U.S. official said.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario visited Washington Jan. 28 and met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Australia agreed in November to host a contingent of U.S. Marines at its northern port of Darwin.
--With assistance from Joel Guinto in Manila. Editors: Larry Liebert, Paul Tighe
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