Tokyo Stumbles Again On Okinawa Marines

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Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, center left, and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka, right, announce plan to relocate Marines on Okinawa. It was roundly rejected.

TOKYO – What were they thinking?

A plan that was supposed to ease the controversy over a noisy Marine Corps air base in Okinawa has instead infuriated local officials and galvanized opponents. And could hasten the removal of Marines from Okinawa once and for all.

U.S. and Japanese officials in Washington announced a plan last week that would allow the transfer of 4,700 Marines from Okinawa to Guam while delaying a decision on where to moved the disputed Futenma air base. Under a 2006 agreement, those actions were to take place in tandem and were designed to ease the burden on Okinawa residents.

Reaction to the new plan was immediate. The Okinawa governor denounced it as a ploy to keep the Futenma base in its current location permanently and a violation of the spirit of the original agreement. The island’s leading newspaper called the plan “absolutely unacceptable.” The mayor-elect of the base’s host community, voted in Sunday, vowed to “prevent by any means” the continued operation of the base.

Even officials outside Okinawa, long ambivalent to the disproportionate U.S. military presence there, lined up against the plan.  The governor of Yamaguchi prefecture protested reports that 1,500 Marines would be moved from Okinawa to the Iwakuni air base (that is, in his district) by threatening to freeze the sale of land needed for an unrelated troop realignment.

All in all, it was a bad miscalculation by Prime Minister Yoshiaki Noda, but not his first on defense issues.  In December, he was forced to fire his first defense minister for gross incompetence. His successor, Naoki Tanaka, proved such an immediate bungler that Noda handed the Futenma negotiations to Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. Who promptly botched the job himself.

Analysts say that with little support outside his own administration, Noda will have no choice but to re-open negotiations. And that could be perilous for the Marines.

Okinawa is a prized posting for Marines but is vulnerable to budget cuts. There are about 18,000 Marines stationed on Okinawa, at a dozen or so camps and bases scattered across the island. Another 7,000 or so Air Force personnel are stationed at Kadena air base. The Marines are required to submit an overall force structure and basing plan to Congress by the end of March, and the Marines are expected to lose about 20,000 troops altogether. A handful of senior Democrats in the House and Senate already are questioning whether any Marines are still needed on Okinawa.

Opponents of the 2006 relocation plan in Japan want the Futenma air base and its 40-some helicopters and transport planes moved off the island entirely, and have effectively blocked construction of a planned replacement facility some 30 miles away.

Closure of Futenma base and cancellation of the replacement facility could force the Marines’ primary combat force on Okinawa, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, to depart as well. Helicopters are an integral part of expeditionary units and without ready access to a nearby airbase, the unit would cease to function.  Departure of the 31st MEU would leave the Marines on Okinawa with a mismatched assortment of higher headquarters and support units, and few quickly-deployable ground forces.

With plans already announced to shift some Marines to Australia, and to send others to Guam and perhaps Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, that could leave the remaining Okinawa Marines even more vulnerable to budget cuts.  And perhaps a farewell, 67 years after they first waded ashore.