Editorial: Issue of U.S. base in Okinawa must not be neglected

The governments of Japan and the United States have agreed to review the plan to relocate members of the U.S. Marine Corps deployed in Okinawa to Guam.

Possibilities under consideration involve first relocating 4,700 marines to Guam, then the remaining 3,300 soldiers would be sent to other locations, including Hawaii.

The question facing the two nations is how this review will impact the decision to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma (in Ginowan City, Okinawa), which was part of the original Guam relocation plan.

The Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed to rescind the original plan in order to separate the Futenma issue from other matters. Meanwhile, the effort to relocate the air station to Henoko in Nago City has ground to a halt.

If nothing is done, the air station in Futenma, which sits amid an urban setting and has been deemed a danger to local residents, will continue to operate without change. Neglecting the issue is a state of affairs that must be avoided.

The Guam relocation plan was a pillar of the agreement reached in 2006 between Japan and the United States regarding the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. The plan was intended to ease the burden of the people of Okinawa with respect to hosting U.S. bases by relocating about 8,000 marines and 9,000 family members to Guam by the year 2014.

The idea of scaling down the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa by relocating personnel while effecting a complete handover of the Futenma air base to the local people was intended to create leverage for the transfer of the Futenma base to Henoko.

But inconsistent positions held by successive administrations of the Democratic Party of Japan have roused a backlash among the people of Okinawa. It cannot be said that the idea of relocating the air station to Henoko has gained the support of the local people.

In Okinawa, voices urging the two governments to move the Futenma base outside of Okinawa Prefecture have grown louder since the original plan was scrapped. For the local people, such a reaction is only natural. The Japanese government is undoubtedly well aware that the relocation to Henoko would be extremely difficult under these circumstances.

Talks on reviewing the agreement between Japan and the United States emerged as the overhaul of bases in Guam was delayed and a new defense strategy was ironed out by the Obama administration, which has emphasized the significance of the Asia-Pacific region.

To counter China, which has been strengthening its military might, the United States appears to have judged that dispersing U.S. forces to a range of locations in the Asia-Pacific region would be a more effective strategy than concentrating those forces in Okinawa and Guam.

Another influential factor is the U.S. Congress. Congress pulled all funds for the relocation of troops from the budget for the new fiscal year, which began last October, contending that the costs for the relocation to Guam are exorbitant and that no progress had been made with the issue involving the Futenma air station.

The Obama administration’s review of the relocation plan is seen as a response to congressional action in anticipation of the budget planning process for the next fiscal year.

Against this backdrop, concerns have arisen that the U.S. government will seek to sway Japan to assume new financial burdens to cover the costs of relocation. But by separating the matter of Futenma from the original realignment plan, the Japanese government will be even more hard-pressed to explain why Japan should be involved in shouldering such burdens involving the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps.

We urge the governments of Japan and the United States to discuss the issue of Futenma in their talks and explore alternatives beyond relocating the base within Okinawa Prefecture.

It must be assumed that Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba believes that “Henoko is the best site” because he has not sought other potential locations. But, given the mood of the people in Okinawa, what steps would he pursue to ease their frustrations if the government moves forward with this idea?

We call on the Japanese and U.S. governments to cancel the relocation plan involving Henoko and seek another solution, including a relocation of the base outside of Okinawa Prefecture or even outside of Japan. The review of the Guam relocation plan offers a timely opportunity for considering a new course.

(Originally published on February 5, 2012)