US to reduce size of force on Okinawa

US to reduce size of force on Okinawa

About 5,000 of the Marines leaving the island are to be sent to Guam and some others to Hawaii.

The United States and Japan have reached agreement on a long-simmering dispute that calls for the US military to reduce the number of Marines on Okinawa by 9,000 and begin returning land to the government there. The deal was presented by senior US officials as a victory for both sides: It offers the prospect of removing a chronic source of Japanese resentment and, in keeping with the Obama administration’s new focus on Asia, allows the defence department to free up ground forces for rotating deployments elsewhere across the Pacific region, the officials say.

No timetable was announced for the redeployment, which would leave about 10,000 Marines based on Okinawa. About 5,000 of the Marines leaving the island are to be sent to Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific Ocean, and a smaller number to Hawaii.
But with US efforts to increase troop rotations and Navy ship visits throughout the region – including a new plan for Marines to rotate through a base in Australia – the overall US presence in the Asia-Pacific region will not decrease, and may grow in various regions at different times, officials say.

The agreement on removing the Marines was made possible by separating those negotiations from another thorny issue. The Japanese have demanded that the US move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its current site – an urban part of Okinawa – to a less-populated spot in the north, at Camp Schwab.

Both sides remain committed to that plan, US officials said, but no details were given of when it might happen.

Increase acceptance

One hope of the United States is that the transfer announced last week will increase acceptance for moving the Futenma base. Okinawa would remain host to Kadena Air Base, the largest US airfield in the region.

The movement to transfer forces was set off in 1996 by the gang rape of a local girl by Marines.

The agreement is “a resounding victory for our bilateral alliance,” a senior State Department official said. The official discussed the deal on the condition of anonymity.
The official acknowledged the importance for the US “to reduce the impact” of its military presence on Okinawa as part of Washington’s goal to retain Japanese support for the alliance with the United States.

Japan has pledged about $3.1 billion to the effort. The cost of moving the Marines when the Futenma air station was part of the plan was estimated at $10.3 billion.

Pentagon officials said the ability to rotate forces along a wider belt in the western Pacific – and not just focus troops in Okinawa – would give the military greater agility in countering potential Chinese expansion while not diminishing deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.

The Pentagon’s new security strategy, adopted this year as officials began planning for the first military budget cuts since the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, envisions fewer permanent bases and more rotational deployments around the world. The goal is to find savings – both in dollars and in the political capital required for sustaining permanent bases – while maintaining a global presence.

With the personnel numbers for both the Marine Corps and the Army shrinking, the ground forces leaving Okinawa can be shifted throughout the Western Pacific as needed for training missions and exercises with other nations, for disaster relief missions, and for dealing with any military contingencies, the Defence Department official said.

Both officials said the administration had been consulting with leading members of Congress. But as the agreement neared completion this week, three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee weighed in. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is chairman of the panel; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican; and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., wrote to Defence Secretary Leon E Panetta raising what they said were “serious questions that have not been fully addressed.”

Late last week, the senators released a statement saying they “still have many questions about the specific details” of the agreement and “its implications for our force posture in the Asia-Pacific region.” But they pledged to work with the administration and Japan to seek “a mutually beneficial, militarily effective and fiscally sustainable agreement regarding the realignment of US forces on Okinawa and Guam.”


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