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U.S. Senators Weigh in on Futenma

by Sheila A. Smith
May 12, 2011

U.S. General David Petraeus and Flournoy speak to Levin and McCain at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

U.S. General David Petraeus and Flournoy speak to Levin and McCain at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

Senators Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb, all of the Armed Services Committee, have announced that they want a review of the Department of Defense realignment plans in Asia. After a visit to the region, including Okinawa and Guam, the senators declared the “present realignment plans are unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable.”

This is a tough assessment, but not a surprising one. Concern about dwindling congressional support for the realignment plan has been growing here in Washington as the budget debate intensified. The stalled effort to build a new runway in the north of Okinawa for the U.S. Marines based at Futenma has not only frustrated Department of Defense planners. It has also raised serious concerns about the overall U.S. military posture in the region.

With the region becoming increasingly sensitive to Chinese military growth, U.S. allies watched the difficulties between the U.S. and Japan over Futenma relocation with considerable concern. To make matters worse, Japan’s devastating earthquake-tsunami on March 11 has also focused national attention (and resources) on the task of recovery, making it even less likely that Japan will be able to move the conversation with Okinawa forward.

The suggestions made in the Levin-McCain-Webb proposal are designed to bring down costs as well as bring to an end to the Futenma bottleneck. Their overarching goal is to reassure others in the region that the U.S. military presence is sustainable.

The recommendations are straight forward. But the politics of moving the U.S. Marines onto Kadena Air Force Base will not be. Kadena has two major runways, and is the largest American military base in the Pacific. For years it seemed the obvious destination for the U.S. Marine helicopters operating out of Futenma. Yet in 1997, this option faltered because of inter-service rivalry among the U.S. planners and local environmental concerns in Okinawa. Today, this idea has new challenges. The Japanese courts have awarded local residents in and around Kadena higher compensation for the noise generated by fighter jets and lowered considerably the legally acceptable threshold for noise.

But the time has come for Washington to openly review the plan. Recent revelations by Wikileaks of behind the scenes discussions between U.S. and Japanese officials regarding the Futenma stalemate revealed what many of us outside of government already understood: the deal that had been forged in 2006 no longer has the support of virtually everyone involved in cobbling it together.

Frustration over Futenma has sorely tested the relationship between Tokyo and Washington at a time when everyone wants to put an end to the problem. Senator Webb put it best: “what we need is a solution.” Let’s see if there is one.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    They will kick us out eventually. If it was not for the fact that Okinawan are considered second class citizens we would have been kicked out. The way I figure we can sail anywhere we want and that is never going to change. So falling back to Guam and bolstering both Guam and Hawaii will secure US interest in the Pacific and beyond via naval force projection.

    What changes is the US umbrella, regardless of what the PLA say they will not confront the US because of where we sail, but confrontation over other matters becomes more likely as we enter the 2020 and beyond. This will be over sovereignty of islands EEZ of our allies, establishment of PLA bases in Pacific and Asia.

    An example is Fiji, East Timor at present no one will confront the US and establish bases in those areas but as the PLA become stronger confrontation is likely if the US seeks to prevent these bases. Are we preventing these bases for ourselves or our allies, with sovereignty issues Islands/EEZ it is clear for our allies. Australia has lost influence in the Pacific Rim to the PRC, in years past Australian never had to worry about bases being established by a foreign power in their area of influence. Japan had not to worry about threats to Islands or EEZ.

    In the future Australia cannot rely on the US blocking the Coral Sea via Guam to hostile forces.

    Japan are told to buy 150 JSF minimum, they want 50. Australia junk their whitepaper and pull monies from defense. Both shifting the burden back on to the US, when the US is seeking to form a coalition, getting countries to increase defense spending to maintain the deterrence that the region has seen for the last 40 years.

    That is how you prevent conflict and maintain peace. The PLA will build 400 J-20, then the coalition will deploy 500 JSF in the region without US assets included in those numbers. It is really up to our allies if they want things to stay the same, conditions that made them prosperous, then all we ask is for a moderate increase in defense spending to maintain the current strategic balance.

    But if they choose not to they change the balance and make confrontation more likely, as such the US has to consider if and when they will be willing to confront the PLA for a third party.

    If Japan does not increase defense spending and procure sufficient assets then in the future after 2020 it becomes a strategic mistake to stay on Okinawa, as we would be pulled into a conflict as sufficient deterrent has not been maintained to prevent conflict over some piece of rock in the sea that both Japan and the PRC claim as their own.

    So for the moment we stay, until it becomes a liability then we leave. What happens in this decade will determine if we stay in 2020-30’s.

  • Posted by Business Money Today

    Not sure why we would even be thinking about reducing our presence in the region. It is not just China we should be worried about. Having served in the area, I know the economic impact of drawing down would far out way any environmental concerns – especially when they need us the most.
    What happens when Japan’s neighbors see them as weak and we have a smaller presence in the region?

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