Top U.S., Japan officials to discuss Futenma plans as opposition in Congress grows
This story was updated June 18.
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Top U.S. and Japan officials will meet early next week to discuss plans for a historic military shift in the Pacific, but it is unlikely the dialogue will quell growing opposition in the United States over the cost of the multibillion-dollar project.
The annual “two-plus-two” meeting involving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Japan’s ministers of defense and foreign affairs in Washington, D.C., is expected to result in approved runway design plans for the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — the first tangible progress for the controversial project in years.
On Friday, a key U.S. Senate committee moved to bar any funds being used to move troops from Japan to Guam.
“This is a major step to put all these changes on hold and to require some analysis of cost and to take an honest look at what the current plans are and what the alternatives are,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters on a conference call Friday, according to The Associated Press.
This action follows a vote by a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to block any funding for the Futenma move and the transfer of 8,600 Okinawa Marines to Guam until military leaders provide better justification for the expense.
The realignment of forces in Japan, where about 49,000 U.S. servicemembers are based, has been in the works for years and opposition from the Japanese public has often caused strains between the U.S. and its longtime ally.
The two countries meet annually to discuss and reaffirm the realignment agreement, but this year’s meeting was delayed due to the massive earthquake and tsunamis that devastated Japan and shook its economy to the core. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo confirmed the meeting will be held in Washington early next week but said no firm date was available Friday.
Now, as Japan digs out of an economic morass, the U.S. is struggling with its own financial problems. The Department of Defense is under intense pressure to cut $400 billion from its budget — a burden that will require “real decisions” and “real cuts” to escalating defense costs, Gates warned a Senate committee earlier this week.
As defense spending goes under the knife, the Government Accountability Office called out the military realignment in Japan and Guam last month in a report that found the military had not appropriately planned or estimated the full cost of the shift, which could ring in at over $29 billion in the next decade.
Opposition over the cost of the military realignment had already been growing in the Senate before the GAO report. Levin and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., harshly criticized the plan after traveling to Japan and Guam in April and suggested the military abandon plans to move Futenma north to Camp Schwab and modify plans for Guam.
U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have since reaffirmed the commitment to the Futenma relocation and the Guam buildup. But the Senate moved another step closer to thwarting those plans earlier this week.
The Senate Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support on Tuesday added language to next year’s proposed defense budget that would bar any funding for the realignment until the commandant of the Marine Corps draws up an ideal force layout in the Pacific and the DOD provides a master plan to implement any realignment.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the Senate wants to see “rigorous analysis behind why we are doing what we are doing” in Japan and Guam.
Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, said the outcome of the political and economic backlash in the U.S. is still uncertain.
“There are still too many unknown factors to know if the current movements in Congress will lead to a big change in the government policy,” he said.
Still, the realignment problems appear unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The Senate, including Levin, pressed incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the cost of the project and his stance during Panetta’s confirmation hearing this week.
Panetta indicated he is open to reviewing the plan, saying there are a “lot of issues to be resolved” and he would work with the Senate to find the most “cost-effective” approach to the military posture in the region.
Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.