Pressure builds for US shift on Okinawa

The Japan Dispatch blog has very interesting analysis about the possibility of shifts in U.S. policy about the military bases in Okinawa, and a larger shift in foreign policy toward an emphasis on Asia.   He points to the APEC summit in Honolulu and the Trans Pacific Partnership as indicators that the Obama administration is pushing for a shift to an Asia focus. Here are some excerpts:

Pressure is growing on the Obama Administration to significantly alter plans for US Marine basing arrangements on Okinawa, but chances seem slim for a policy shift at least until Defense Secretary Robert Gates departs office late next month.

Several factors have converged to give the issue new urgency. Opposition remains strong on Okinawa to construction of a new facility in the Henoko Bay area, to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, which has been slated for closure since 1995. There is simply no momentum in Japan to move forward with the project, a situation made more stark by the Great Eastern Earthquake of March 11. Tokyo is intensely focused on reconstruction efforts; neither the financial nor political capital is available to push the Henoko project through.

Meanwhile, construction delays and cost overruns continue to bedevil a critical, related portion of the plan: the relocation of over 8,000 Marines and 9,000 family members from Okinawa to Guam.

And in Washington, an increasingly debt-weary Congress is asking whether it is worth the cost of building the new Henoko facility and the new Marine housing and related facilities on Guam, when cheaper force configurations more conducive to strategic needs in Asia might be found.


ASIA POLICY SHIFT: Evidence continues to grow that President Obama and his top aides would like to see a major US strategic shift toward greater emphasis on Asia, which should be particularly evident when the President hosts the APEC summit in Hawaii next November.

It’s notable that in a recent New Yorker analysis of Obama’s foreign policy, NSC director Tom Donilon, deputy director Ben Rhodes (Obama’s long-time chief foreign policy speechwriter), and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell were all quoted outlining just such a strategic “rebalancing” of American foreign policy. The Pentagon’s top policy chief, Michelle Flournoy, outlined a similar policy in a recent talk at Johns Hopkins.

The administration is looking to energize America’s role in East Asia by fomenting a system of open and transparent economic and security cooperation in the region, defining the terms of engagement to which China has to respond. The economic component, for now, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade initiative. And the security component involves building on America’s traditional bilateral security alliances in the region to include a network of overlapping bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security relationships from India, through Vietnam and Indonesia, to Australia, and up to Korea and Japan.


WORKING WITH CONGRESS: But the White House continues to send signals that it is serious about a shift in strategy toward Asia. A restructured US force posture would not be seen as retreat, but rather an effective region-wide “hedge” in the event China tries to throw its growing weight around in the region. And sources close to Kurt Campbell say that he is convinced that continued US and Japanese wrangling over Futenma will threaten the whole “shift” strategy, because it can’t work without a vibrant US-Japan alliance.

Campbell is prepared to work with Webb and others in Congress on a new basing arrangement for the Marines in the Pacific. Once Panetta takes over as defense secretary, and assuming Lippert becomes his top deputy for Asia, the White House would have in place an administration-wide team to pursue an expanded role in the region.


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