GUAM – On his first trip to Asia as Secretary of Defense this week, Leon Panetta has repeatedly told Pacific allies that the United States intends to grow its resources in the region by continuing to build regional cooperation and fulfilling a long delayed a troop realignment agreement with Japan.
Mr. Panetta has spent his trip reassuring Pacific leaders that fiscal austerity measures in Washington will not deter the country’s commitment to securing the region. Saying the U.S.-Japan security alliance is a cornerstone of Pacific peace and security, Mr. Panetta met with Japan Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa today to press for more certain steps towards building a new air base on Okinawa that would allow the U.S. to close the one in the crowded city of Futenma and move thousands of Futenma-based Marines to Guam.
Congressional funding to continue the military construction program meant to prepare Guam to host the Marines has been held up until “tangible progress” is demonstrated on the Futenma replacement.
Even as the U.S. Congress seeks defense cuts to help reduce the country’s crippling federal deficit, Mr. Panetta has vowed not to compromise a “robust forward presence in Asia.” The Futenma Replacement Facility would give the Marines an air base at Camp Schwab on Okinawa’s quiet, remote eastern coast from which they can better operate.
“Moving forward with the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab is a core part of this effort,” Mr. Panetta wrote this week in an editorial in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun. Adding that realigning the U.S. military footprint in Japan will relieve the cost and impact on local populations there, he urged that “doing so as soon as possible will be good for the alliance, for the people of Okinawa and for regional peace and stability.”
Mr. Panetta’s push for progress on the Futenma Replacement Facility before the end of this year has the potential to revitalize funding and momentum for the military buildup in Guam. Japan’s cooperation on Futenma could influence Capitol Hill as it debates whether to authorize Guam buildup programs and appropriate the necessary funds this fiscal year.
Congress is not expected to take action on the defense authorization bill until December or later. Meanwhile, a deficit super committee tasked to reduce the national debt by cutting Defense and other federal spending over the next decade has until the end of November to make its recommendations. Mr. Panetta’s visit to Japan is timely for making the most of this budget-deciding season in Washington.
Mr. Panetta’s weeklong Asia trip, which started with a stop in Indonesia, will conclude later this week with a visit to South Korea.
The Japan leg of his trip includes scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro Gemba. Senior staff traveling with the Secretary said that besides U.S. troop basing in Japan, other the topics of discussion for the Japan meetings would range from arms exports and ballistic missile defense to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology.
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Photo used in this article courtesy Department of Defense. Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey.