The long-planned move of thousands of Marines from Okinawa to new bases on Guam as part of a strategic pivot of U.S. forces to Asia could be threatened by budget cuts, lawmakers were told Tuesday.
“This will take resources and be challenged by budget conditions,” Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee, said during a panel briefing. “We’re fighting for every dime we can get” to realign the troops to Guam, she said.
The shift of the Marines off Okinawa has already been scaled back from a planned 8,000 troops to 5,000, and “half of those will be on a rotational basis,” said Bordallo, who is also the House delegate from the U.S. territory in the Marianas Islands.
The panel will hold a series of oversight hearings on President Obama’s plans to concentrate most troops overseas into the Asia-Pacific region during the next decade. Four of the five planned hearings will focus on China and U.S. efforts to deal with Beijing’s growing influence and military build-up.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who heads the committee, said he was designating Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, to lead the oversight effort on the Pacific rebalance.
On the Pacific issue, Forbes pledged a level of bipartisanship that has eluded House members on other matters. “We’re going to have Republicans and Democrats working together,” he said.
“With the United States’ pivot to the Pacific as the theater of the future, Hawaii’s strategic importance will grow,” Hanabusa said. “We have long been America’s doorstep to the Asia-Pacific region, so this national change in focus cannot help but have profound effects on our state, community and economy,” she said.
At a Pentagon briefing Monday with visiting New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the scheduled $52 billion in automatic defense cuts next year under a process known as sequestration “will affect all our plans” but “at the same time, we’ve said that this rebalance is a priority.”
However, the turmoil in the Middle East, the Pentagon’s continuing budget woes and the federal government shutdown earlier this month have raised doubts among allies about the U.S. commitment to the rebalance.
The 16-day shutdown forced Obama to cancel his participation in two Asian summits and related visits to Malaysia and the Philippines. Chinese President Xi Jinping took advantage of Obama’s absence by bringing a large entourage to the Asian summits and pitching Beijing’s credentials as a reliable and increasingly powerful neighbor.
The shift of Marines from Okinawa to Guam has been linked to the long-delayed closure of the Marine air base at Futenma on Okinawa and the relocation of Marine aircraft to a new base in a less-populated sector of the island. But the relocation has stalled over environmental and cost factors.
Japan has agreed to contribute up to $3.1 billion of the estimated $8.6 billion cost of moving the Marines and building new facilities on Guam.
Last week, a top Navy commander in the region stressed that the Pacific rebalance was well underway despite the military’s budget problems and political disputes among allies. Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, commander of the carrier George Washington’s strike group based in Yokosuka, Japan, said that the expanded role for the U.S. would have a calming effect on tensions in the region.
“The strategic rebalancing has resulted in an extremely higher number of surface combatants, cruisers and destroyers that support the strike group,” Montgomery told Agence France Presse in an interview.
“We have sufficient funds for our operations” despite the sequester process, he added. “There is in fact a strategic rebalancing in place that has resulted in more ships and aircraft being out here.”