Just two months after Washington and Tokyo announced a “breakthrough” roadmap for the realignment of US Marine forces on Okinawa, the same disagreements that have blocked progress for almost two decades have returned to the fore.
On May 9, Major General James Kessler, commander of the Marine Corps Installations Command, told a Senate subcommittee that the controversial US Marine Air Station Futenma will be operational “for probably the next 10-15 years.”
In that scenario, the Futenma facility, dangerously located in the middle of Ginowan City, would remain open as late as 2028 – a full 32 years after the US and Japan initially announced plans for its closure, and 14 years later than the 2014 targeted closure date.
The “breakthrough” plan announced in April said Futenma would close in 2022 “or later,” with officials on both sides refusing to specify what “later” might mean. Kessler’s testimony provides a window on the internal Marine Corps planning.
Indeed, Kessler urged Congress to provide funding for projects to upgrade conditions at Futenma, which suffers from excessive wear-and-tear.
The Kessler testimony gives credence to the concern voiced by Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima that the “2022 or later” time for the return of Futenma amounts to a plan to keep the facility open indefinitely.
Despite intense political pressure on Okinawa for the closure of Futenma, it appears that little sense of urgency has worked its way into the operational machinery of the Marine Corps.
THE RAND PLAN: Ironically, just a few days before the Kessler testimony, the influential RAND Corp. think tank issued a voluminous study on the costs and strategic benefits of basing US military forces overseas. The study, commissioned by Congress as part of the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, concluded that most of the US Marines now based on Okinawa could be relocated to California without any appreciable decline in response time to a crisis.
Specifically, the report suggested that only the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), a highly-trained, “special operations capable” group, remain on Okinawa. The 31st MEU is the only one of the Marine Corps’ seven MEUs to be based overseas. It consists of some 2,500 Marines, with a dedicated “Amphibious Ready Group” of naval vessels based at Sasebo.
The 31st MEU is virtually self-sufficient, capable of deploying at moment’s notice, fully equipped, for upwards of one month.
By contrast, the readiness of the rest of the Marines based on Okinawa depends on them “marrying up” with supply ships that are prepositioned in Guam. Moreover, the deployment of the majority of the III MEF Marines in response to an emergency would require several hundred airlift sorties by transport aircraft not based on Okinawa.
In short, the RAND study suggests, the response time of the III MEF would not suffer if the force were deployed to a crisis zone from California rather than from Okinawa.
THE HENOKO PROJECT IS STILL DEAD: The RAND study’s conclusions once again call into question the political and strategic wisdom on the part of the United States of insisting on the construction of a new air station to replace Futenma. The US continues to state that Futenma must remain open unless and until a replacement facility, planned for the Henoko area of the main island of Okinawa, is built.
By contrast, a large majority of Okinawans insist that any replacement facility be located outside of Okinawa, which bears the overwhelming brunt of the US military presence in Japan.
The issue is so contentious as to cause a split between the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the local Okinawa chapter of the LDP.
Since taking office last December, Abe has been trying to convince conservatives on Okinawa to get behind the Henoko FRF (Futenma Replacement Facility) project. Abe’s government has officially requested that the Okinawa Prefectural Government give approval to a land reclamation project in Henoko Bay that is a prerequisite for construction of the new facility. Governor Nakaima has the authority to reject the request.
The Okinawa prefectural chapter of the LDP voted earlier this week in favor of a resolution calling for relocation of the Futenma Air Station outside of Okinawa. That pledge seems likely to make it into the chapter’s platform for upcoming elections for the national Upper House. The chapter meeting brought together local LDP assembly members, who voted unanimously to work for an early closure of Futenma and for its relocation out of the prefecture.
Some analysts argue that the stance of the Okinawa LDP is largely designed to improve the prospects of LDP candidates running for the Upper House from Okinawa districts. Even the LDP headquarters will not openly promote the Henoko project in its national platform for the Upper House elections.
But LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, expressed displeasure with the vote by the LDP’s Okinawa chapter, arguing that foreign policy is the purview of the national government.
The stance taken by the LDP’s Okinawa chapter is a strong indication that Prime Minister Abe has made little headway in convincing conservatives on Okinawa to shift to a pro-Henoko stance.
ABE HURTS HIS CAUSE: Prime Minister Abe did not help his cause in late April, when he enthusiastically promoted a “sovereignty recovery day” to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the ending of the US occupation of Japan.
Okinawans were furious about the tenor of the celebration, considering that the prefecture remained under US occupation after the rest of Japan regained sovereignty in 1952. Okinawa did not revert to Japanese sovereignty until 20 years later, in 1972. By that time, the US military presence on Japan’s four main islands had been significantly scaled back, leaving Okinawa to host the vast majority of US military installations and personnel in Japan.
Abe did not sponsor any celebrations marking the 41st anniversary of Okinawa regaining sovereignty, reinforcing a sense among many Okinawans that they are discriminated against by Tokyo.
Instead, the Abe administration lent its support to a May 19 meeting on Okinawa that, while ostensibly celebrating the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, was actually held to promote the Henoko project. Abe sent a message to the meeting, as did Aiko Shimajiri, a parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet Office. This is the same Aiko Shimajiri dispatched by Abe last February to the controversial “Takeshima Day” ceremony in Shimane Prefecture, a nationalistic event that greatly angered South Korea.
During the May 19 meeting, held in Ginowan City (location of Futenma), organizers handed out leaflets promoting the Henoko project. The keynote speech was given by conservative firebrand Yoshiko Sakurai, who criticized local Okinawa media opponents of the Henoko project as “backward-looking, anti-mainland, and anti-Japan.”
Despite much evidence to the contrary, Mark Lippert, chief of staff for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told the Asahi Shimbun recently that the US has “seen a lot of positive feedback and a lot of good momentum as a result of the Okinawa Consolidation Plan” announced last April.
So much “momentum” that Prime Minister Abe’s own LDP won’t include the Henoko plan in its Upper House election manifesto.