It looks as if President Obama, during his upcoming stop in Australia, will finally announce in Darwin a long-discussed Western Australia “training option” for the US Marine Corps, which would involve regular rotation of Marine infantry units to the area, which is both well-located and held high in Australian military lore.
The Administration will present this as part of a broader plan for a more active US strategic presence in the whole of the Pacific.
But there still are no signs of a US policy shift regarding the USMC deployment in Okinawa. In particular, there remain no signs that the US has altered plans to try to build a much-disputed new runway in Henoko Bay, to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, which has been slated for closure for over decade.
To the contrary, in a bilateral meeting with Japan’s Prime Yoshikio Noda at the APEC Summit in Hawaii on Saturday, Obama reiterated US expectations for faster results on the Henoko project.
Obama Administration officials remain locked into their now-familiar obdurate stances on Okinawa issues, despite the overwhelming consensus among specialists who follow the area that intense local opposition will never allow the project to proceed. They even show surprisingly little concern for the inevitable domestic problems the Futema/Henoko issues will cause for the beleaguered Noda, who is already trying to manage a nuclear power crisis, a devastated earthquake/tsunami zone, and burgeoning other domestic troubles. Noda even managed to drag his divided Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) into regional TPP trade talks that Obama wanted to prominently promote at the APEC meeting for his domestic audience as a “jobs producing” initiative.
Ironically, Noda may be the most promising young leader to come along in Japan in quite some time, so it would hardly seem wise for Washington to complicate his political life. But that’s what happening.
DARWIN DETAILS: Details of Obama’s planned presentation in Darwin are few and far between; the White House is playing this card particularly close to the chest, all part of the “Asia Initiative” centered on this past weekend’s APEC meetings, the President’s subsequent stop in Australia, and then the East Asia summit in Indonesia.
The White House for months has planned the regional visit this way, as Obama wants the US to be a “strategic leader” in the region, and to leverage that enhanced US regional presence to be a “job producer” at home.
FORCE POSTURE: The restructuring of the US global force posture from Southwest Asia – Iraq and Afghanistan – toward the Pacific, has been a goal of the Obama White House for quite some time. There is little doubt that Obama believes this is a classic circumstance in which good policy is good politics.
OBAMA’S DILEMMA: Actually implementing such a huge shift is easier said than done. Okinawa is only one of many pieces to the puzzle, which makes it difficult to directly address.
Inside the White House, the first order is winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is happening, but with tough negotiations with Iraq, and debates with and within the US military brass about future force structure and strategy in both countries. Meanwhile, a hefty portion of the US national security establishment understandably remains focused on Iran, not to mention the Arab Spring.
Then there are the looming cuts in the US budget, and the implications these will have on weapons systems, manpower levels, and basing – not to mention on inter-service rivalries.
The Marines are themselves conducting a study of future roles and missions. Former Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that the extraordinary requirements of the Iraq and Afghan wars turned the Marines into more of a traditional infantry unit than one with its usual expeditionary characteristics. The Marines are looking closely at where they will fit in the US global force posture of the next 20 years. The total size of the Marine Corps will surely be cut, which will logically lead to basing rearrangements.
In this context, a key player in the process – someone extraordinarily close to President Obama -- acknowledged the other day in a lengthy exchange of views that the President himself has not yet given specific instructions as to how this emerging, energized East Asia policy could open the way to reworking the flawed aspects of the policy on Okinawa that are causing unnecessary tensions with Japan, the vital US ally in the region.
So far as the over-worked, over-stretched, US national security apparatus is concerned, the US and Japan have a deal concerning Okinawa, and Japan should keep to it.
This may be no way to run an alliance, but no one in the upper echelons of the Obama team wants to get stuck either in Washington or Japan -- in the political quicksand of Okinawa.
At this point, the US Air Force and US Marines are – in public, anyway – so committed to the Henoko plan that only a direct order from Defense Secretary Panetta -- perhaps even the President himself would have to give the order – could break an extraordinary logjam that is causing such big troubles for the US-Japan alliance.
A big part of the problem is inter-service rivalry between the Air Force and the Marines. The Air Force maintains at Kadena, on Okinawa, one of the largest air force bases in the world. The notion that there is not space on Kadena for the rather limited number of helicopters routinely operating from Futenma does not fly.
Marine leaders, for their part, say they would relocate to Kadena. A skeptical top Marine General said privately recently that if the new Henoko project were ever built, “it would be the eighth wonder of the world.” Many Marines simply think it is not going to happen.
That’s not to say the US Marine Corps has not negotiated hard for the Henoko project. The envisioned v-shaped runway would mostly be used by the flawed Osprey vertical lift-off and take-off vehicle that can transform into a fixed-wing vehicle for longer-faster flights. The vehicle has the ability to emergency land with a modified fixed-wing position in the event the vertical equipment fails. That’s the reason for the Henoko Project runway -- the root of the entire controversy.
Many analysts agree that integration of the Futenma helicopter operations into Kadena could cause some political tension with Okinawans. But compared to efforts to build an unnecessary new runway at Henoko, the tensions would probably be small. And, as Senator Jim Webb has emphasized, there are ways to disperse some of the current heavy aircraft now present at Kadena.
AUSTRALIA OPENS THE DOOR: On an optimistic note, opening the door to US Marine Corps overseas training with Pacific allies on a rotational basis could provide an opportunity to begin reconsidering the out-of-date Futenma-Henoko issue. In an excellent RECENT PAPER, Washington analysts Mike Mochizuki and Mike O’Hanlon argued, among other things, that more US Marines could deploy from the US on a routine, rotational basis, rather than so many being based on Okinawa as they are today. This would include training in Japan and elsewhere in a region in which the US is looking to expand ties and open new friendships in any case.
Along these lines, Mochizuki wrote in an email, the existing Futenma facility could be closed, the US could preposition equipment and supplies overseas, and US Marine Corps helicopters and other aircraft could utilize existing US and Japan Self Defense facilities. There certainly would be no need for a new runway at Henoko.
It’s only a matter of time – probably the middle of 2012 -- before the existing 2006 Roadmap to realign the US Marine Corp presence on Okinawa publicly falls apart politically. There is virtually no serious movement on Okinawa itself for implementation. An effort by Tokyo to use police or other means of coercion to forcibly begin construction would do incalculable damage to the US-Japan alliance. And on Guam itself, construction delays and cost overruns have already led senor members of the Senate to demand a new approach.
Who know’s? The President’s Darwin speech may be an beginning.