Yesterday Japan’s foreign minister Koichiro Gemba announced a new effort by the U.S. and Japanese governments to adjust the plan to relocate U.S. Marines currently stationed in Okinawa. The announcement was widely welcomed in Japan, especially in Okinawa.
The U.S.-Japan Joint Statement on Defense Posture issued on February 8 was very brief, and had very few details. It reiterates the goals of the bilateral agreement to move U.S. Marines off of Okinawa, but media reports suggest that while the total number of Marines leaving the island will remain unchanged, their destination will. The number of Marines heading to Guam is reported to be 4,700, and the remaining 3,300 will be dispersed to other bases in the Asia Pacific.
This is a considerable shift in the U.S. position on Futenma. Since 2009, the U.S. government has insisted on linking agreement on the construction of a new runway in Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa to any troop movements off island. Now, the reduction in Marines can move forward, and the Japanese government can return the land used by the Marines in central Okinawa back to commercial use. This will go a long way to meeting the governor’s hopes for economic development and job creation on the island.
Japan’s foreign and defense ministers appeared rather jubilant at the press conference announcing the new direction of talks over Futenma relocation. The important signal in the statement is the return of five facilities south of Kadena Air Base, and the timing of that base return will no longer be linked to approval of the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF). When asked about the delinking of what the United States had referred to as an all or nothing “package deal,” Japan’s foreign minister acknowledged that Tokyo had felt “pressured” by Washington.
Yet it may be too early for celebrations. Both governments remain adamant that they need to relocate Futenma Marine Air Station, and argue that there is “no viable alternative” to Henoko bay in Nago City. Activism against this construction plan will likely remain high. Indeed as the two governments were talking this week, the mayor of Nago City, Susumu Inamine, was also making his way around Washington, meeting with think tank experts and Congressional staff on the Hill. Two weeks earlier another delegation of Okinawan politicians and civil society leaders were also here, meeting with ten Congressmen and over forty congressional staff members as well as other Japan experts. There seems little doubt that sentiments in Okinawa opposing the current relocation plan remain high.
For now, this new more flexible approach is truly welcome. For too long the two governments stuck with a plan that could not be implemented. There is still much creative thinking to be done on how to reconfigure U.S. military bases in Japan. Ultimately, we need a comprehensive approach that looks forward to the next decade and beyond, and that fully considers the political transitions underway in Japan and in Asia more broadly. Unpacking the Futenma “package” is an important first step in that direction.