US troops relocating to Guam but scepticism in Okinawa lingers. And even some in the US military are unconvinced

Julian Ryall
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US troops relocating to Guam but scepticism in Okinawa lingers. And even some in the US military are unconvinced

The long-delayed relocation of US troops from Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture to the Pacific island of Guam could commence in October 2024 and be completed within 18 months, although the transfer has been criticised by opponents of US bases in the region and even questioned by the US military itself.

A spokesman for the US Marine Corps in Guam told Japan’s Kyodo News that about 5,000 troops based in Japan’s most southerly prefecture will be moving, with about 1,700 to be based permanently in Guam and the remainder rotating through the territory from bases in Hawaii, South Korea and Australia.

The move is part of a broader realignment of Washington’s military assets in the region that dates back more than 20 years but has been repeatedly delayed, primarily due to local opposition to the enlargement of the US Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab at Henoko, in northeast Okinawa.

As US frets over China and North Korea, Okinawa looks stuck with its military base

A new military base is being built near Andersen Air Force Base in the northern part of Guam. The new facility is due to be completed in 2026 and will be home to 5,000 Marines and an estimated 2,400 dependents.

The local government in Guam has welcomed the timeline for the transfer.

“We have been preparing and planning for this for some time and we are working very closely with the military and our federal partners on Guam,” a spokeswoman for Governor Lou Leon Guerrero said. “That work has been underway for at least 15 years now and we are working towards the 2024 deadline.”

In an address in April, Guerrero said the military build-up would have a positive economic impact on the island and its residents, adding: “Our administration is determined to see that it is done responsibly and at a pace that will benefit and respect our local people, culture and environment.”

The build-up on Guam will cost an estimated US$8.7 billion, with Japan contributing US$3.1 billion.

Although campaigners against the US military presence in Okinawa welcome the departure of many of the 20,600 Marines stationed there, scepticism remains.

Transferring them to Guam only makes them somebody else’s problem

Yasukatsu Matsushima, Ryukoku University

“This is positive news for the people of Okinawa, but we are not sure that it will actually happen as it depends on the completion of the new US base at Camp Schwab,” said Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor of economics at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University and a firm advocate of Okinawan independence.

“There are many problems at the site, not least the fact that the seabed where the government is planning to carry out reclamation work for the construction of new runways is soft mud that cannot bear the weight required.

“Even if this does go ahead, there will still be thousands of Marines in Okinawa. The people of Okinawa want them all to leave – but we also want them to go to the US mainland because transferring them to Guam only makes them somebody else’s problem.

“The indigenous Chamorro people of Guam are going to be in a very similar position to Okinawans. They are going to have the same problems that we have experienced since the end of the war; there are going to be accidents and crimes committed by the troops and we know that a lot of Chamorro people are against the colonisation of their island.”

Current plans are for the Marines force on Guam to comprise an expeditionary brigade command element, an infantry regiment, a combat logistics battalion and an air combat element. However, senior officials have expressed concern that the relocation of military units further from northeast Asia diminishes response capabilities.

During Senate hearings in Washington in early May, General Robert B. Neller, the outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps, said he believed the plan to leave Okinawa should be reconsidered.

“The plan, as it is currently designed, I think is worthy, possibly, of a review,” Neller said. “That is my personal and professional opinion.”

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