US, Japan Pave Way To Send Okinawa Marines To Guam

Published February 8, 2012 10:18AM (EST)

TOKYO (AP) — The transfer of thousands of U.S. Marines to Guam will not require the prior closure of a base on the southern Japan island of Okinawa, the United States and Japan announced Wednesday in a compromise they hope will break a stalemate over opposition to the large U.S. military presence there.

The announcement follows high-level talks to rework a 2006 agreement for 8,000 Marines on Okinawa to move to Guam by 2014 if a replacement for the base — Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — could be built.

That agreement has been effectively scuttled by opposition on Okinawa, where many believe the base should be simply closed and moved overseas or elsewhere in Japan. More than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, including 18,000 Marines, are stationed on Okinawa.

Wednesday's statement was vague on specifics of what lies ahead.

But senior Japanese officials have said 4,700 Marines will be transferred to Guam. The remaining 3,300 would reportedly rotate among Australia, Hawaii or the Philippines.

Progress on the issue is important to the United States, which is looking to revise its military and diplomatic posture in Asia — in what is being called the "Pacific Pivot" — to reflect the rising power of China and increasing tensions over territorial disputes throughout the region.

Washington is also under pressure to make the most of its resources as budget cuts loom in Congress with the winding down of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Guam has pushed hard for the buildup because of the potential economic boom.

"We are the closest U.S. community to Asia. We are very patriotic citizens. And unlike many foreign countries and even some U.S. communities, we welcome an increased military presence," Gov. Eddie Calvo said in a statement released last week. "We are the closest U.S. community to the fastest-growing region in the world."

Tokyo, meanwhile, is hoping the reduction of troops on Okinawa will ease local opposition and demonstrate its desire to stand by promises to reduce the island's share of the troop-hosting burden. Officials say they remain committed to closing Futenma, which the U.S. and Japan agreed to do after the rape of a schoolgirl in 1995 led to mass protests.

The initial response on Okinawa was pessimistic.

The governor refused to comment, saying he needed further information, but concerns have been raised that the deal would essentially shelve efforts to shut down Futenma. The most likely replacement site, on a less crowded part of the island, is widely opposed on Okinawa and its viability remains a heated political debate.

Guam, which is being built up to play a greater role in Washington's Asia-Pacific strategy, could also stand to get far fewer Marines than expected if the new plan goes through. The tiny U.S. territory had been counting on a huge boost from the restructuring plan, and may have to revise its forecasts.

But officials said the revised number could be more manageable.

A smaller contingent of Marines would alleviate concerns on Guam that the swelling military presence would overwhelm the island's infrastructure and environment.

Mark G. Calvo, the director of Guam's military buildup office, said the territory has been briefed by the Department of Defense about the talks with Japan and supports the transfer, even if it is smaller than expected. He said the idea of reducing it to about 4,000 Marines had been discussed after an environmental impact assessment two years ago pointed to possible problems.

"There are concerns about a loss of economic benefits, but it puts us in a better position to adjust our infrastructure," he said.

By Salon Staff

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