Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hailed the agreement reached Friday for the relocation of a Marine Corps base on Okinawa as a catalyst for the U.S. plan to shift forces to the Pacific to counter China.
"The re-alignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture in the region," the Pentagon's top civilian said in a statement.
Senior Defense Department officials portrayed the long-delayed deal to move the controversial Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa to a more remote part of the island as the trigger for shifting thousands of Marines off Okinawa to Guam over the next several years.
The officials also said the Okinawa arrangement would ease negotiations on new security agreements and training exercises with the Philippines and South Korea.
"Reaching this milestone is a clear demonstration to the region that the alliance is capable of handling complex, difficult problems in order to deal effectively with 21st century security challenges," Hagel said.
A senior DoD official who spoke on background during a conference call said the Futenma relocation also was a major accomplishment for Hagel after a rocky first year at the Pentagon marked by furloughs, battles over troop pay and benefits, and frustration over the course of events in the Mideast and Afghanistan.
"The secretary was heavily engaged in this," the official said, referring to the difficult negotiations leading to the agreement between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima of the Okinawa Prefecture.
The agreement gave the go-ahead for the U.S. "to implement our consolidation plan on Okinawa, and continue our progress with relocating Marines to Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific," Hagel said.
"Symbolically, this is probably more important than it is militarily," said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress, a research organization in Washington, D.C.
"The Okinawans have never been happy, there was real outrage" over Futenma and the intrusive U.S. military presence on the island, Korb said. Relocating the base could serve as a safety valve for public opposition, he said, allowing the U.S. to focus on more strategic issues involved in the so-called "Pacific pivot."
Following his agreement with Abe, Gov. Nakaima said that recent territorial disputes with China and Beijing's declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea were factors in his decision to sign despite fierce opposition from many of the 1.4 million residents of Okinawa.
"Regardless of the sentiment of Okinawan people on military presence, the tension of international situations has been increasing in recent days, and Okinawa must play a certain role," Nakaima said. "However, Okinawa has been shouldering an unfairly heavy burden."
Immediately following the announcement, about 2,000 protesters rallied at the Okinawan prefectural assembly building in Naha, the capital, holding signs saying, "Leave office, Governor" and "We won't allow the landfill."
Under the deal, Nakaima signed off an agreement for landfill work to begin in order to construct runways for a replacement for Futenma. The base is currently located in the heavily populated Ginowan district and will be relocated to a more remote seaside area in the northern Henoko district.
Challenges in the Japanese courts over environmental concerns are likely but the U.S. and the Tokyo government said they expected the relocation to be upheld.
In a previous statement earlier this week, Hagel pledged to work with Japan on addressing the environmental concerns involving the move to Henoko.
"This framework will help guide our activities going forward related to our shared goal of reducing impact to Japan's precious natural landscape as we continue to conduct operations that provide for the common defense of Japan," Hagel said in a statement.
The timing for the shutdown of Futenma and the start of operations at Henoko could also prove to be problematic. The initial deal called for the move to Henoko to be completed by 2022. But Nakaima said, "Prime Minister Abe promised me that his government would work to meet our request to halt operations at Futenma air station within five years."
"We will move to the Futenma Replacement Facility (Henoko) when it's fully operational," a senior DoD official said. "The estimated date that we have for that in our consolidation plan released in April is 2022," the official said.
"This is a facility that depends entirely on the government of Japan's construction efforts," the official added. "If the government of Japan is able to accelerate the construction and to move that date up, we'll be quite happy to move to the facility and begin operations there."
The opposition on Okinawa to Futenma increased earlier this year when the Marines moved a squadron of MV-22 Ospreys to the base and locals raised concerns about the safe operation of the tilt-rotor aircraft over populated areas.
The Marines have operated the Ospreys without incident since then and the MV-22s demonstrated their quick response and versatility by being first on the scene for relief efforts in the aftermath of super-Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Loren Thompson, executive director of the Lexington Institute, said the arrangement on Okinawa could be a precursor for other regional deals that will be necessary for the rebalance of forces.
"If the U.S. is going to bolster its presence in the western Pacific, it has to begin by having a basing structure that the locals will welcome," Thompson said.
Under the agreement, the U.S. also agreed to close or scale down several military facilities on Okinawa south of the major Kadena Air Force Base, which will stay in operation. The facilities included the Makimoto Service Area at Camp Kinser, several areas at Camp Foster, and the military port at Naha.
Currently, more than half of the 50,000 troops in U.S. Forces Japan are based in Okinawa. The agreement called for moving within a decade about 9,000 of the 18,000 Marines off Okinawa, with 5,000 going to Guam and the rest to Hawaii.
The senior DoD officials said the department was already involved in addressing concerns raised by the Senate Armed Services Committee about the costs of the move to Guam. Japan has agreed to contribute up to $3.1 billion to the construction of new facilities on Guam to ease the move.
China has previously protested the basing of Ospreys on Okinawa and Abe's pledge to spend $240 billion on a defense buildup as signs of Japan's aggressive intent under the nationalistic Abe to revive the militaristic traditions of the past and re-write its pacifist Constitution.
On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a blistering condemnation of Abe's Dec. 25 visit to pray at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to Japan's war dead, including 14 World War II war criminals.
"What we can see is hypocrisy, unscrupulousness, and self-contradiction through his dishonest excuses yesterday as well as all his words and deeds over the past year," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Referring to Abe, Hua said, "How can such a person, who is unwilling and doesn't dare to face up to the history of his own country, win the trust of the international community? How can he make people believe he will play a role in promoting peace and stability in the region and the world at large?"