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Time for Futenma Rethink

With little local support, it’s time for a rethink of the current plan to relocate US forces in Japan.

Former CIA chief Leon Panetta took up his new post as US Defence Secretary on July 1, and with his appointment comes a chance for the Barack Obama administration to revise the current plans for the relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma base in Okinawa. 

The current proposal to relocate Futenma to a less populated area in northern Okinawa also calls for the construction of a V-shaped runway off the shore of Camp Schwab in Henoko Bay. This plan faces tremendous local opposition and is deeply unpopular in Okinawa, which hosts two-thirds of the US forces in Japan, despite accounting for less than one percent of the country’s land mass. In order for the current plan to move forward, the signature of Okinawa’s governor is needed, as he has the right of approval for local land reclamation projects. But the chances of the plan receiving his approval look slim, with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima recently rejecting the double runway idea as ‘absurd.’
Despite strong local Okinawan opposition, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Defence Secretary Robert Gates and their Japanese counterparts reaffirmed the current realignment plan during the Security Consultative Committee meeting on June 21. But by removing the deadline of 2014 to relocate the base without including a new deadline—only the vague ‘at the earliest possible date after 2014’ was included in the statement—officials essentially acknowledged the unfeasibility of the current relocation plan.  

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Also opposed to the current relocation plan are three influential lawmakers in the US Senate Armed Services Committee. On May 11, Senators Carl Levin, John McCain, and Jim Webb issued joint statements calling the present realignment plans in East Asia ‘unrealistic, unworkable, and unaffordable.’ Drawing on the senators’ recommendations, the Committee unanimously approved on June 16 the National Defence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, which will require the Defence Department to re-evaluate the possibility of relocating some of the Air Force assets at Kadena Air Base to other bases, while moving the functions at Futenma to Kadena Air Base—instead of building a costly new facility at Camp Schwab. The provisions in the bill are expected to pass the budget-weary Congress.
But the Kadena option faces challenges as well. In response to the senators’ recommendations in May, a Pentagon spokesman said the options of integrating Futenma’s functions into Kadena Air Base had already been studied—and rejected—as a viable alternative. Furthermore, the relocation of Marine aviation functions to Kadena faces stiff local and legal opposition as the threshold for legally acceptable noise levels has already been lowered by Japanese courts, which have sided with residents in and around Kadena. 
Both Washington and Tokyo say they are committed to reducing the impact of US bases in Okinawa, but their insistence on pushing forward a plan without local support contradicts such promises. During his confirmation hearing, Panetta said he would review the Defence Department’s posture in Asia, promising to make appropriate recommendations. New leadership at the Pentagon provides an opportunity to change gears. For a president who campaigned on ‘change,’ the time seems ripe to deliver on a Futenma relocation plan that has a realistic chance of being implemented. 
Sophia Yang is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.