On Wednesday morning, Onodera Itsunori, parliamentary vice foreign minister, arrived in Okinawa to meet with US military and local government officials. The latter demanded resolute action in response to the incident, with Tomon Mitsuko, mayor of Okinawa City (and a former Socialist HR member), suggesting that a reduction in the USMC presence in Okinawa is the only response. The assemblies of both Okinawa City and Chatan-cho have passed resolutions that criticize the US government and the US military’s preventive measures to prevent the recurrence of these incidents, and call on the Japanese government to take responsibility for the situation. Nakaima Hirokazu, governor of Okinawa, also expressed his anger in a special session of the Okinawa assembly. These legislative actions follow a day of protests in Okinawa at the gates of US military facilities.
Prime Minister Fukuda has also taken up the cudgel, declaring his intention to raise the issue in talks with US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at the end of February.
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, conveyed his regrets to Kato Ryozo, Japan’s ambassador to Washington, on Tuesday (local time), following apologies by Kevin Maher, US consul-general in Okinawa, and Lieutenant General Richard C. Zilmer (III MEF), both of whom met with Governor Nakaima and discussed how the US can strengthen safeguards to prevent these incidents.
Will it make any difference in the long term? Talk of the Iwakuni election’s strengthening the realignment process has undoubtedly been drowned out by the public outcry in Okinawa. US officials and military officers will be apologizing at every occasion for months to come, just as their Japanese counterparts will be using those occasions to highlight the need for safeguards. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for progress to me.
The US has already conceded in the 2006 US-Japan realignment roadmap that the USMC does not have a long-term future in Okinawa, seeing as how the roadmap envisions the relocation of most of the III Marine Expeditionary Force to Guam, totaling approximately 8,000 Marines (and 9,000 dependents). The question is whether the US can afford to wait until the conditions for the relocation — progress on the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) at Camp Schwab and Japanese financial contributions to construction work on Guam — are satisfied. The continuing presence of the USMC jeopardizes US air and sea assets, assets that bolster US deterrent strength and enable the US Navy to play a stabilizing role in the region.
The next US administration should strongly consider renegotiating the May 2006 agreement, perhaps giving ground on demands for Japanese contributions to Guam construction in exchange for progress on the FRF — and shortening the time line for the departure of USMC personnel from Okinawa.
The latter measure will require a crash building program, because Guam, lacking housing, infrastructure, and training facilities, is not even remotely ready to handle the massive influx of USMC personnel. This will require the exertion of political will on the part of the next president. While former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was eager to transform the US global military deployments and thus pushed hard for a realignment agreement with Japan, both the US and Japanese governments have failed to follow through on the May 2006 plan. Washington has been distracted; Tokyo has been slow (and heavy-handed) in efforts to overcome local resistance to the roadmap.
If the US is sincere in its desire to reduce and consolidate its presence in Okinawa, it needs to consider steps to hasten the process, starting with measures to ready Guam to serve as the US Military’s hub in the Western Pacific sooner than expected.