TOKYO – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Feb. 16 and the relocation of United States Marines from Okinawa to Guam is high on the list of matters she will be discussing with her Japanese counterparts.
Officials in Tokyo have revealed that Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone expects to sign an accord on the issue with Clinton during her two-day visit underlining both sides’ commitment to the "road map" agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces stationed in Japan that was rubber-stamped in 2006.
Despite both governments’ apparent desire to move the Defense Policy Review Initiative process along and the repeated confirmation of 2014 as the date for the relocation plan to be completed there remain serious obstacles to be overcome – not least the fact that the present Japanese government will likely be out of power within the next eight months.
Much is being made here of the significance of Clinton making Tokyo her first overseas port of call since taking up the post last month. Concern has been rising in Tokyo that the incoming administration of President Barack Obama would be placing more emphasis on Washington’s relations with China at the expense of Japan. After all it was reasoned it was Clinton’s husband who was behind the slight that became known as "Japan passing" here when he was president.
Mrs. Clinton will go on to China and South Korea for talks after leaving Japan but Tokyo will be using her visit here to underline the importance of the bilateral relationship both in economic and defense terms. Key to that is the relocation of the military.
According to officials here Japan wants to speed up the relocation of the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from its present site in Okinawa Prefecture in the residential district of the town of Ginowan to the coast of Camp Schwab close to the town of Nago in the northeast of the prefecture.
As soon as the accord is signed it will be submitted to the Japanese parliament for endorsement which will simultaneously enhance the importance of the road map to an "agreement that is equivalent to a treaty."
Nakasone emphasized the importance the Japanese government places on pushing the proposals forward during a brief visit to Okinawa in early February.
The minister who was visiting the prefecture for the first time since being appointed in September met local civilian officials and representatives of the U.S. military and was photographed being given a guided tour of Camp Schwab.
"The present plan was decided after thorough consideration and from multilateral viewpoints " he told a press conference in Naha. "Therefore it would be difficult to change the plan without a convincing and rational reason."
Nakasone said he spoke with Secretary Clinton shortly after she was sworn into office and she had confirmed Washington’s commitment to the realignment of its forces presently stationed on Japanese soil.
Under the terms of the existing agreement Japan will pay $6 billion of the total $10.3 billion required to move some 8 000 Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.
Yet the 2006 agreement has made little progress and there have been repeated warnings that the 2014 deadline is unlikely to be met. Most recently the commander of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific told Reuters that he believes the transfer will take longer and cost more than presently envisaged.
"We are behind a timeline to achieve that goal of 8 000 (Marines) down to Guam and we don’t have enough money to make it happen right now " Navy Adm. Timothy Keating said on Feb. 5. "I don’t think it will happen on time. I think it will be more expensive " he said.
Based in Hawaii Keating was quick to point out that there had been no changes made to the overall plan by the new administration in Washington but that the timeline is now unlikely to be met. He also suggested that a delay may be beneficial to both Japan and the U.S.
"A case can be made that a more measured longer-term approach… could be beneficial " he told Reuters. "It could be reassuring to our friends and allies in the region that we’re not abandoning Japan we’re not rushing to judgment."
The presence of U.S. forces in Okinawa continues to provoke anger in the prefecture with crimes committed by military personnel frequently front-page news for the local media. Japan has more than 80 American bases and about 33 000 troops and by far the highest proportion is stationed on Okinawa. Since the Japan-American Security Alliance was signed in the early 1950s the military has been blamed for more than 200 000 crimes. The vast majority are petty – last week Japanese prosecutors demanded a four-year prison term for a former Marine accused of illegally entering a military installation car theft and other crimes – but Okinawans have been quick to demonstrate against serious crimes such as the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old local school girl by three U.S. servicemen.
The progress of the entire relocation plan hinges on the transfer of the facilities at Futenma to Camp Schwab; delaying that move will inevitably slow the other elements and local residents and authorities continue to oppose the construction of two V-shaped runways on a coastal area that is home to rare fauna and flora including coral reefs and protected dugongs. The wrangling is over the site for the new facility which local people want constructed on floating pontoons much further offshore continues.
And while the present government seems keen to push the legislation through the parliament and get the initial steps of the plan under way they will also face a political fight to get their own way.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan controls the upper house of the Japanese parliament and has already stated that it opposes some of the terms of the plan notably the amount that Japanese taxpayers are required to shell out to fund the project. In particular questions have been raised here about the estimated $645 000 cost of building each single-family home on Guam that the military is quoting.
No matter what agreement is reached on Feb. 16 between Nakasone and Clinton should the DPJ – as expected – win power in a general election that must be called by October then the terms of the accord may well be reviewed and the whole process is likely to again grind to a halt.