WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Japan agreed to press forward with plans to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere on Okinawa “at the earliest possible date after 2014,” in a renewed bilateral security agreement issued Tuesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and their Japanese counterparts emerged from meetings in Washington with a list of joint security objectives for the region, including extending the 15-year-old Pacific realignment plan and checking North Korean nuclear ambition. They also praised joint military operations during the March earthquake and tsunami.
The sides did not set a hard deadline for Futenma operations to move to Camp Schwab but conceded the original 2014 deadline was unachievable.
Gates, in likely his final say on the matter before leaving office next week, said it was “critical” they moved forward.
“We [both] emphasized the importance of concrete progress over the course of the next year,” he said during a news conference at the State Department.
Japan’s Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa added, “We also confirmed that we should strive...for earliest possible relocation.”
Moving Futenma is just one step in the larger Pacific realignment of U.S. forces that would reduce the American footprint in Japan, shift troops south to Guam, and consolidate bases in South Korea. Guam must first to build up its infrastructure to accept 8,000 U.S. Marines and an estimated 9,000 family members relocating from Okinawa.
Okinawans long have complained about the noise and pollution from Futenma, which is located in densely populated Ginowan, and the debate is a major issue in Japanese politics.
The issue has also gained renewed attention in Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday passed a bill banning spending for the move to Guam until the Marines study the plan all over again.
Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Ranking Member Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., have led a roadblock effort, inserting language that would have the DOD consider alternatives to new facilities at Camp Schwab, moving some Kadena Air Base assets off of the island and moving some Futenma assets to Kadena.
In one of the few concrete items to emerge from Tuesday’s meeting, Japan agreed the new facility at Camp Schwab would have two 1,800-meter V-shaped runways. That idea, preliminarily approved last year over plans for a single runway, faced Japanese opposition because it requires building up the coastline from the sea, potentially damaging marine life. A joint statement said the sides agree to allow minor adjustments to the runways, barring any delays due to environmental impact studies and construction.
U.S. officials also said Japan agreed to fully fund its “host nation support” commitments to the realignment plan for the next five years.
Japan assured the U.S. that the earthquake and tsunami costs would not affect its commitment to the agreement, a senior U.S. administration official said.
The governments also promised to release to the public as soon as possible a new detailed consolidation plan for U.S. bases in Japan.
Beyond the Futenma issue, the sides said “uncertainties” in the regional security environment were increasing, citing the Koreas, China and plans for trilateral talks with India.
“The U.S. remains committed to maintaining a robust forward presence in East Asia,” Gates said, praising improved U.S.-Japanese relations since he took office in 2006.
Gates also announced Japan had agreed on a framework to begin allowing the transfer of jointly produced missile interceptors, known as SM-3 Block IIA, to other countries, something the U.S. has long sought.
Additionally, the U.S. welcomed a Japanese proposal for a disaster relief hub and the increased use of robots and unmanned aircraft in those operations.