US Marine Corps Commandant, General Robert Neller’s recent comments about re-thinking the plan to move 9,000 Marines to Guam and Hawaii from Okinawa no doubt exasperated Japan’s government.

However, there’s been plenty of exasperation to go around over the last 20 years when it comes to the US Marines and Okinawa.

(Note: Okinawa is host to more than half of the 47,000 US troops stationed in Japan and opposition to the military presence has grown among residents.)

Japan has promised repeatedly since 1996 to do the necessary to resolve the Okinawa opposition to US bases by moving the Marines’ Futenma Air Station to a quieter part of the island. The failure to do so was exasperating, though it happened often enough to get used to it.

As for using the Americans as a whipping boy for a Japanese central government unwilling to spend political capital to take on a noisy Okinawan opposition? Exasperating.

And the Okinawa Prefectural Government happily pocketing a US$3 billion economic development subsidy from Tokyo for hosting the bases, while continually complaining about the bases — yes, exasperating.

Donald Rumsfeld

The troop realignment plan, part of what is known as the Defense Policy Review Initiative was the direct result of then-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld taking umbrage at his treatment by Okinawan officials during a meeting in 2003 — a meeting US officials advised against.

A miffed Secretary Rumsfeld said Americans won’t stay where they aren’t wanted.

His minions — unwilling to say it wasn’t a good idea — set to work, but were really just rearranging the furniture to keep the boss happy.

(There was already a serviceable agreement to address Okinawa issues known as SACO, but nobody much remembers that these days.)

There’s more. The 2006 agreement that emerged to build a replacement for the Marines’ Futenma Air Station at Henoko on Okinawa was itself, well, exasperating.

A planned landfill site for the relocation of a US Marines base on the coast of Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa, on April 25th, 2017. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun.

Instead of replicating Futenma’s 10,000 foot runway and support facilities, the US accepted what is just a long heliport at Henoko that also happened to pour concrete over some rather nice scenery.

US negotiators’ agreeing to this was exasperating, as was negotiating with Japanese officials that could be just as stubborn as North Korean negotiators.

Washington decisions

And it’s exasperating that the original plan in the mid-2000’s for moving Marines out of Okinawa was pulled out of thin air at Marine Corps Headquarters (HQMC) in Washington, while ignoring input from those most knowledgeable about Asia.

In other words, shifting Marines around as currently envisioned was largely unnecessary, ill-conceived, and poorly implemented. It does provide some nice sinecures with no particular need to bring anything to fruition. That word, again: Exasperating.

Within the Marine Corps, the farther east one goes from Marine Corps’ Pacific Headquarters in Hawaii, and once past Camp Pendleton in California, understanding of and interest in the Asia/Pacific dissipates quickly.

Arrive at HQMC and Asia appears no more or less important than Africa, Latin America, or anywhere else. And the Pacific Marines — despite facing off against China and North Korea — have to get in line when resources are doled out.

It’s also exasperating that base and training facilities on Guam and the Northern Marianas, known as CNMI, remain “in progress” after more than a decade.


HQMC’s inability to see benefit in having Marines in Darwin, Australia, can be exasperating too.

Instead of considering Darwin’s rare value as a location from which to project influence into Southeast Asia, it’s seen merely as a giant training area that takes too long and costs too much to get to.

Complaining about Darwin’s cost is exasperating. Running the coffee-shop franchises at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan costs about as much.

The Australians can be exasperating as well. They allowed a Chinese company to lease nearby Darwin Port for 99 years. Shall we assume that Chinese corporation will say “no” when China’s intelligence services come calling?

And some of Commandant Neller’s stated reasons for the re-think are curiously exasperating.

North Korean missiles mandate a re-think? Maybe. But the China missile threat is many times worse — and has existed for years.

And given the range and accuracy of such missiles, which keeps improving, the only escape is to move Marines back to the US and burrow inside the Nevada mountains and hope the Chinese and North Koreans can’t hit the entrances.

As for the excuse of inadequate training facilities on Guam/CNMI, this is nothing new and the same can be said for Okinawa. Have the Marines come from the US fully trained and then train elsewhere in the region. They’ve been doing this for decades.

Ultimately, all this reflects the US’s haphazard (indeed, exasperating) approach to the Asia-Pacific. The Americans haven’t had a coherent Asia strategy for years – just a steady flow of ideas ramming into each other bumper-car style.

One can’t predict if Washington and its partners will muster the clear thinking needed to solve these problems.

But muddling along for another decade or two? That’s exasperating.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired Marine Officer

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