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Obama rejects senators’ new Japan plan for U.S. forces

Obama rejects senators’ new Japan plan for U.S. forces

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan had a message today for three senators who want to rethink the plan to reorganize U.S. troop presence in Japan: Thanks, but no thanks.

Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA), Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for an entirely new plan for basing U.S. troops in East Asia on May 11, arguing that the current plans were no longer feasible or cost effective. They proposed halting the realignment of U.S. troops in South Korea, scaling back the plan to drastically increase the U.S.  military presence on Guam, and changing the plan to relocate the controversial Futenma Air Base on Okinawa to a new facility elsewhere on the island.

It’s the Futenma piece of the puzzle that is most problematic for the Japanese. The plan to relocate Futenma to Camp Schwab, in northeastern Okinawa, was originally proposed in 1996 and the details were agreed to in 2006. However, no progress has been made, because the Okinawan government objected strenuously to the idea. The Futenma issue even became a major irritant in the relationship between Obama and Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama.

On Thursday, the three senators touted a new GAO report they said supports their contention that the current plan is unworkable. "DOD is transforming the facilities and infrastructure that support its posture in Asia without the benefit of comprehensive cost information or an analysis of alternatives that are essential to conducting affordability analysis," the report stated.

"The GAO report underscores our concerns," Levin said in a statement.  "Certain projects in Korea, Japan and Guam have gotten to the point that it is clearly in the best interests of our countries, and in the best interests of sustaining and furthering our strong alliances, to re-examine these plans and adjust them to fiscal, political and strategic realities."

But when it comes Futenma, Obama and Kan announced today after their meeting in France that they would stick to what the two countries have agreed to — period.

"The two leaders agreed that it’s important for Japan to continue its efforts to follow through on the agreement of last May to implement the realignment road map on Okinawa in order to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance and the basing arrangements are on a solid footing as we continue to work to enhance, revitalize and modernize our alliance," NSC Senior Director Dan Russel said after the meeting.

"The Okinawa issue is very challenging, but I hope Japan can make progress through cooperation with the United States," Kan said.

Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper reported that Obama echoed Kan’s remarks and said that, while he is aware of political difficulties over the base, he wants to improve the stability of the Japan-U.S. alliance over the medium- and long-term.

One administration official told The Cable that there’s just no appetite to reopen this can of worms, and there’s a lot of sensitivity inside the U.S. government about causing domestic political problems for Kan, who is struggling to keep power. Plus, the senators’ plan, which would relocate Futenma to a base called Kadena, is just as likely to be unpopular with the Okinawans, the official said.

Kan also accepted Obama’s offer for an "official" visit to Washington in September, but it’s unlikely that Kan will get a "state visit" with a "state dinner," as did Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"I think we have yet to work out the fine points of what it will entail as a practical matter, but that he would come for an official visit in his capacity as prime minister — not just a quick hop to Washington," Russel said.