GUAM – There is a new energy and cohesion lately between the Obama and Noda Administrations as politics and fiscal crises in both the U.S. and Japan put a strain on their alliance plan to strengthen military force posture in Japan and across Asia.
The multi-billion-dollar U.S.-Japan strategy to deter a rising China and secure an increasingly volatile Asia-Pacific region has been under heightened assault in Washington since the summer, when the Senate threatened to hold up funding for the allies’ realignment roadmap. That plan would redistribute 30,000 troops in the region, including thousands of Marines who would move to Guam.
The Senate squeeze on Guam military buildup funding got tighter as deep partisan divide in Washington brought the country to the brink of default on its $14 trillion national debt, setting off alarms in the financial markets and scaring Congress into deficit cutting mode, largely on the back of the Pentagon, which accounts for almost 20 percent of federal spending.
Washington’s new, government-wide fiscal austerity has thrown a wrench into Guam buildup projects, specifically holding up fiscal year 2012 funding totaling $155 million for military construction work meant to prepare the island for hosting the Marines, and another $33 million for related civilian infrastructure funding.
The Obama Administration has since been putting pressure on Congress, warning that holding up the money for the realignment plan would betray the trust of the U.S.’s Japan allies.
Besides threatening the current budget, deficit cutting over the next 10 years will affect Pentagon and defense spending beginning in 2013. How this will affect the Guam buildup depends largely on whether Congress will require the Pentagon to cut only $350 billion, or harsher yet, increase the required savings to almost $1 trillion over the next decade.
Meanwhile, the Administration also revived the urgency to secure forward progress on building a new Marine air base on Okinawa to replace the current one in the island’s crowded Futenma district. When President Obama met with newly elected Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, he made clear that time was of the essence for Tokyo to overcome its own domestic politics and roadblocks to the realignment plan and demonstrate tangible movement towards building the new base.
Mr. Noda has worked to match that urgency, sending his cabinet ministers to meet with the Okinawan governor last week, launching a high level team to oversee the realignment, and announcing an aggressive timeline to finish the required environmental assessment study and apply for coastal land reclamation to build the new base. The replacement base, long held up by domestic politics in Japan, would ultimately lead to the transfer of thousands of Futenma-based Marines to Guam.
This week, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Japan, Lt. General Burton Field, offered a rare interview to emphasize that the sooner Marines can move to a base where they can better operate, the better for everyone, including Okinawans, who want to reduce their island’s troop hosting burden.
Pushing for forward progress on the Futenma replacement facility is high on the U.S. agenda as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is scheduled to meet with his Japan counterpart, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, at their first ministerial in Tokyo on Tuesday.
As the Senate wants to require “tangible progress” on a Futenma replacement facility before releasing more buildup funding, Mr. Panetta’s timing may be designed to produce results on the issue before the House and Senate go into bicameral conference to finalize 2012 appropriations for the Pentagon. Showing progress before December could also influence deficit super committee deliberations, which must wrap up at the end of November. Congress will vote on the committee’s expected deficit reduction plan before Christmas.
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