GUAM – Within the span of one week in January two remarkably aligned meetings happened. First, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Japan and makes conciliatory gestures to the national government and Okinawans on the thorny issue of Futenma. Then, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work arrives in Guam and concedes that the military’s new firing range will be redesigned for unimpeded access to Pagat village and Pagat caves.

 

 

Suddenly, 2011 is shaping up to be the year that the Department of Defense — showing a renewed focus on the real endgame — is okay offering a bit o’ honey. On the small stuff, DoD is being downright deferential and flexible. A more sensitive, collaborative military signals one thing. Mr. Gates and DoD are focused on the big goal: realigning the U.S. military in Asia to secure regional peace and stability.

After a year when disputes like Futenma and Pagat tended to overshadow the country’s preeminent regional defense goals and its 50-year security alliance with Japan, the warmer tone is melting ice already.

On his recent visit to Japan, Mr. Gates said that he would defer to Tokyo to solve the difficult issue of moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa. And unlike his last visit to the country in 2009, Mr. Gates showed remarkable sensitivity toward what he called “politically complex” relations between Okinawans and Japan’s national government.

Meanwhile, only a week after Mr. Gates signaled the U.S.’s flexibility on Futenma, Work visited Guam with an impressive contingent of Department of Defense colleagues. Within hours of their high-level meeting with Guam Governor Eddie Calvo, news surfaced about the Navy’s decision to preserve unimpeded access to the ancient village of Pagat and Pagat caves. Echoing Mr. Gates’ softened tone, Mr. Work went on to promise that DoD’s footprint on Guam would actually shrink by the end of the buildup. No small gesture to islanders still bruised by the memory of the massive post-World War II military land grab.

The ancient village of Pagat ranks high on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Sites’ most endangered list, and some Guam activists have stridently opposed DoD’s plans for the area.

In one sweeping gesture during his 24-hour visit, Mr. Work demonstrated a more collaborative, fair-minded military than most remember. And while there will always be strident voices against any further militarization of Guam, he may have begun to ease the tension for the majority of Guamanians who see the buildup as a way to rebuild the island’s faltering economy, infrastructure, utilities, schools, hospital and more.

In both cases, the separate visits by Mr. Gates and Mr. Work elicited similar feelings from the national leaders of Japan and Guam’s executive branch. Japan Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, after meeting with Mr. Gates, indicated that Japan wants to cooperate in unprecedented ways with the United States. His statements underscored significant improvement in US-Japan relations over the past year and reaffirmed Japan’s commitment to the security alliance and its bilateral agreements with the U.S.

Even as the activist group We Are Guahan and certain members of the Guam Legislature expressed continued disappointment over DoD’s plans, Guam Governor Eddie Calvo returned Mr. Work’s handshake. In his op-ed in the Pacific Daily News the day after their January meeting, Mr. Calvo wrote: “And if yesterday’s concessions are any indication of the road ahead, then Guam is going to see some very bright days in the near future.”