U.S. Troop Shift to Guam May Ease Tensions With Japan Over Okinawa Bases

The U.S. and Japan agreed to move thousands of Marines to Guam from Okinawa in a cost-cutting move that circumvents a disputed base relocation agreement that has frayed bilateral relations.

“We are committed to reducing the burden on Okinawa,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said at a press conference today in Tokyo in announcing the agreement. “This marks a major step forward in deepening the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

The realignment separates the troop shift from an agreement to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa to another part of the island that has stalled over local objections. Okinawans have repeatedly called for the facility to be moved elsewhere, citing crime and pollution, and the issue led to the 2010 resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama after he submitted to U.S. pressure to confirm the deal.

While Gemba gave no details of troop numbers, President Barack Obama will send about 4,500 Marines stationed in Japan to Guam as he curtails a plan costing as much as $21.1 billion to expand the military’s presence on the island, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. The U.S. will rotate an additional 4,000 troops through Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii, the people said.

“Futenma is virtually impossible to move, and the U.S. must evolve its military posture without waiting for Japan,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and now director of research at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

Camp Schwab

Today’s statement reaffirmed the intention of both governments to move the air station to a new facility at Camp Schwab, near the Okinawan town of Henoko.

“Under no circumstances does this mean that the Futenma air base will remain in place for good,” Gemba said.

The U.S. and Japan have “agreed to delink the movement of Marines to Guam” from progress on replacing Futenma, George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said today in an e-mailed statement.

Both countries are continuing discussions on the next steps and ways to “mitigate the impact of the Marine presence on the Okinawan people,” Little wrote. “It’s premature to discuss troop numbers or specific locations associated with the relocation of Marines from Okinawa,” until the negotiations between U.S. and Japan are complete, he said.

Guam will continue to be developed as a “strategic hub with an operational Marine Corps presence,” Little said.

Realigning to Asia

Obama is realigning Asia-Pacific forces as his administration moves to blunt China’s expanding influence in an area that accounts for half the world’s economy. At the same time, the Pentagon is seeking to cut about $490 billion from projected spending over a decade.

As part of a 2006 agreement with Japan, 8,000 Marines and 9,000 dependents were to be transferred from Okinawa almost 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) south to Guam by 2014. Japan pays about 188 billion yen ($2.4 billion) a year to host 38,000 American military personnel and 43,000 dependents as part of a 52-year security treaty. More than 75 percent of the bases are on Okinawa, about 950 miles south of Tokyo.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s sixth leader in five years, hasn’t been any more successful than his predecessors in persuading Okinawa residents to accept the base transfer. He was forced to replace his defense minister after a ministry official was fired for comparing the relocation to rape, recalling a 1995 incident in which three American soldiers sexually assaulted an Okinawan schoolgirl.

Australia, Philippines

Last May, Democratic U.S. Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Jim Webb of Virginia joined Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona in calling on the Defense Department to save money by reducing the Marine Corps expansion on Guam.

U.S. troops will be stationed in northern Australia under a plan that Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced in November. The U.S. and the Philippines last month agreed to “deepen and broaden” maritime security cooperation as Philippine officials seek closer ties to deter China from operating in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

“The U.S. is shifting its projection of power to the Pacific region amid China’s rise,” said Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former Foreign Ministry official and a visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

To contact the reporters on this story: Takashi Hirokawa in Tokyo at thirokawa@bloomberg.net; Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo at ssakamaki1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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