By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - With the United States shifting its axis of security toward the Asia-Pacific by expanding its military footprint in Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam, it may be high time for the United States Marine Corps to leave Japan's Okinawa.
A shifting security dynamic in the region, most notably due to China's enhanced strike capabilities, will likely marginalize the marines' presence on the island.
Japan and the US this week agreed to move about 4,700 marines from Okinawa to the US Pacific territory of Guam, while sticking to fiercely opposed plans to move US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to a new offshore base to be built in a coastal area off Camp Schwab, another marine base in Nago City, northern Okinawa.
The shift to Guam is a departure from a previous 2006 bilateral agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan. Until now, the US had claimed that the transfer of about 8,000 Okinawa-based marines to Guam and the completion of Henoko airbase in Nago were a package deal. It had also demanded that Tokyo show "tangible progress" in the construction of a new heliport as a prerequisite for the transfer of the marines to Guam.
"The US has conducted a strategic review of its defense posture in Asia," the US State Department and the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a joint statement on February 8. "Japan welcomes this initiative."
Why did the US change course by delinking the transfer of marines to Guam with the long-standing, thorny issue of the Futenma relocation?
Necessity knows no law. First of all, the Pentagon is apparently impatient with the political impasse caused by Okinawans' opposition to the new airbase in Nago. Although Tokyo supports the plan, it has been strongly opposed by the Okinawa prefectural government and the vast majority of Okinawa residents for years.
"[I] expect both governments to have consultations based on local opinions," Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said on February 8. "The relocation plan of Futenma base without local consent would be impossible. [We have] no change in demanding the new facility to move out of Okinawa."
The planned transfer of thousands of marines to Guam without progress on the Futenma relocation is also part of an ongoing US strategy to counter China's military build-up, especially its growing naval power in the West Pacific.
The Pentagon is closely watching China's "anti-access/area denial" strategy, which envisions blocking freedom of movement for US ships. By creating two lines of coastal defenses in the region, military analysts believe Beijing aims to nullify the capabilities of US aircraft carriers and air defenses within the zone.
The so-called AirSea battle concept combines US air and naval strengths. It departs from the Cold War-era AirLand Battle doctrine drafted to prepare for an invasion by the former Soviet Union.
The AirSea battle concept meant to combat China's growing military might doesn't fit with high troop levels on Okinawa, since the latter cannot be moved swiftly and could be easily targeted by China's middle-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-21.
The new battle strategy forces the Pentagon to keep key US forces out of China's strike range.
"It's better for US Marines to keep at a safe distance from China," Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online. "I expect the US to fortify Guam as a strong military base from now on."
Vague number of US Marines on Okinawa
Japanese media have reported that apart from moving 4,700 marines from Okinawa to Guam, the Pentagon is also considering rotating 3,300 to other overseas bases in the Pacific such as Hawaii, Australia and the Philippines.
Of the 3,300 marines, media have reported that 1,000 will be deployed to Hawaii and 800 to the US mainland. Meanwhile, other media have said 2,300 will go to Darwin in northern Australia and 1,000 to Hawaii.
It's also been reported that the US has sounded out Tokyo on transferring about 1,500 marines to the Iwakuni marine base in Yamaguchi Prefecture - the only Marine Corps Air Station on mainland Japan - with central and local governments flatly rejecting the idea.
Some US Marines stationed in Okinawa will likely move to South Korea, Chosun Ilbo also has reported. Pentagon spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde on Friday denied the South Korean newspaper's report by saying, "there has been no discussion between the US and the Republic of Korea [South Korea] on this issue".
Unclear figures on how many US Marines are actually on Okinawa - due to expeditions and rotating shifts - has also aggravated the Japanese public. While both the US and Japanese governments claim 18,000 marines are normally based on Okinawa, the Okinawa prefectural government says only 14,958 marines were based on the island as of September 2009.
Military experts estimate the number at 12,000-14,000 at best in recent years because of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then Japanese defense minister Toshimi Kitazawa said in February 2010 that there were only 4,000 to 5,000 marines stationed on Okinawa due to Iraqi and Afghanistan deployments.
The US and Japanese governments say there will 10,000 marines in Okinawa even after shifting 8,000 marines around the island. But the claim could be just a pretext to avoid military budget cuts.
Plans for deep US defense cuts are another major likely reason why moving the marines out of Okinawa has been disconnected from the relocation of the Futenma airbase.
With the national budget deficit expected to exceed $1 trillion in 2012 for the fourth consecutive year, President Barack Obama on January 5 unveiled a new defense strategy that aims at significantly reducing the country's defense expenditure. It calls for a downsizing of the US military and for priority deployment of troops in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Pentagon is looking to cut defense spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years by eliminating almost 100,000 US ground troops as part of plans for a "smaller, leaner" military. Specifically, it plans to reduce the marine corps by 20,000 to 182,000 active-duty members.
Another reason for the realignment of US forces in Japan could be a change of Washington's top Asia officials. Wallace Gregson, a former US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and James Steinberg, a former duty Secretary of State, both resigned last year. The Pentagon on Monday also announced that Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, East Asia, will step down soon.
The shake-up of top policymakers who've been engaged in past negotiations with Japan might have brought about a policy change this time around. This is simply be down to bureaucrats' unshakeable belief in in their own infallibility.
Henoko plan is impossible
Almost all analysts agree that the transfer of the US Futenma air station to an off-shore location in Henoko Bay Nago would be impossible due to the strong opposition from Okinawans. But abolishing this unrealistic plan still seems a taboo among US and Japanese policy makers.
"My point is that we do not have to be paralyzed between the existing Futenma facility and the Henoko option that doesn't seem realistic," US Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, said in a recent interview with Dispatch Japan.
"The Henoko plan is impossible," Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's international intelligence bureau, told Asia Times Online. "But Japan cannot say, 'we cannot do it' to the US." Magosaki said.
As Tokyo sits on the fence, resentment towards the US military bases on Okinawa is rising, especially as official campaigning for the mayoral election in Ginowan City kicked off in February - the planned relocation of the Futenma airbase is the top issue. Both of the poll's two candidates want the Futenma air station, which occupies a quarter of the city's total land area, moved out of the prefecture.
With both Tokyo and Washington struggling to win the consent of Okinawans to the relocation plan, there are worries in Japan over the Futenma air station becoming fixed in its present location in Ginowan City.
The US also seems to have used this logic to advance the relocation plan. In the late 1990s, there were plans to just close the Futenma airbase, not relocate it, after three marines raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl; but in 2006, the US administration managed to make the closing of Futenma a package deal linked to the building of a new heliport in Henoko.
One fatal military accident at Futenma airbase, which is surrounded by more than 100 schools, hospitals and shops, could trigger very strong anti-US sentiment. This could severely damage the presence of the island's Kadena airbase, the largest and strongest US military base in the Far East.
To avoid such an aggravating situation just in case, the closing of the contentious Futenma air station without a new facility is the best way forward for both governments, as was once agreed in the late 1990s.