United States Affirms Military Realignment Plan in Japan

Bruce Klingner /

During bilateral security talks, Washington and Tokyo affirmed their commitment to the 2009 bilateral Guam Agreement, which delineates the planned realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan.

The June 21 Security Consultative Talks—comprised of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Takeaki Matusmoto—emphasized the need to complete plans to build a replacement facility for a U.S. Marine Corps air unit stationed on Okinawa.

The SCC joint statement confirmed plans to build two 1,800-foot runways aligned in a V-shaped configuration at Camp Henoko in Okinawa. The statement also affirmed that the planned movement of 8,000 Marines and the return of some U.S. bases to local control remains “dependent on tangible progress toward completion of the replacement facility.” Okinawan opponents had sought to delink the agreement’s components in order to achieve a drawdown of U.S. forces while opposing the alternative U.S. air station.

Washington and Tokyo did, however, postpone the original 2014 deadline for building the airfield and redeploying the Marines to Guam to “the earliest possible date after 2014.” The target date had become unrealistic since the Democratic Party of Japan–led government had dragged its feet on implementing the agreement for almost two years.

The two countries rejected recent congressional proposals to put the agreement in abeyance pending extensive budgetary review and consideration of alternative proposals. In doing so, the Obama Administration has put itself firmly at loggerheads with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) defense budget markup. The Administration’s refusal to deviate from the carefully crafted bilateral agreement is commendable, since it will maintain military capabilities necessary to fulfill U.S. treaty commitments to defending Japan and maintaining peace and stability in Asia.

The SASC initiative to postpone the planned U.S. force realignment in Japan and Korea must still be approved by the full Senate. Senator Daniel Inouye (D–HI), chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed support for the existing Guam Agreement, rebuffing the proposal to integrate Futenma into the Kadena Air Base, commenting that such a plan had been previously proposed and rejected as unworkable.

The SASC proposal would undermine years of carefully crafted diplomacy that achieved U.S. strategic objectives and resolved contentious issues with allies. Integrating Marine helicopter operations into the Kadena Air Base would significantly degrade an already difficult operational and training environment. Consolidating Futenma and Kadena flight operations would exceed existing runway and storage capabilities for surge operations during a military crisis or humanitarian emergency.

To accommodate their recommendation, Senators Carl Levin (D–MI) and James Webb (D–VA) casually suggest that U.S. Air Force units now at Kadena could be dispersed “into other areas of the Pacific region.” However, all units on Okinawa are necessary and already best positioned to fulfill critical treaty commitments and other alliance missions.

The Obama Administration should continue to press Tokyo to fully implement the Guam Agreement. The U.S. should also increase its public diplomacy efforts to convince the Japanese and Okinawan legislators, media, and public that the U.S. military presence is critical to the security of Japan and regional stability. Washington should also emphasize to Okinawa that the existing agreement addresses local concerns by moving the Marine air unit to a less populated area—reducing the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa—and returning land to local authorities.

The U.S. Marines on Okinawa are an indispensable and irreplaceable component of any U.S. response to an Asian crisis. Removing Marine Corps assets from Okinawa would leave the United States with a two-legged security stool in a region where steadiness and support are essential.