Goodbye Okinawa, Hello Darwin

11/14/2011
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The city of Darwin in Australia

TOKYO (majirox news) — President Obama will visit Australia this week, and it’s expected he will announce that the US will station the Marines in Australia, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The rumor mills have been working overtime in anticipation on a possible move of the US Marines from Okinawa to Darwin.

Darwin is a small city of 127,000 and the capital of Australia’s Northern Territories facing the Timor Sea and Papua New Guinea. During WWII, it was a major battleground between Japan and the Allies, being repeatedly attacked by Japanese bombers. A lost WWII era Japanese mini-sub was discovered near the harbor a few weeks ago.

Darwin is mainly a mining and tourist town, but has one of the largest army bases with 4,500 soldiers as well as an Australian Air Force Base.

A possible move of the Marines to Australia has been in the air for a long time. In 2003, an anonymous correspondent, who signed himself “soldier,” wrote on a US military site that introduces military bases worldwide to enlisted men, “In 2003, the US planned to move 20,000 US Marines in Okinawa to Australia where they are planning to establish new bases. In doing this, the US Marines will (also) increase their presence in Malaysia and Singapore.”

During the George W. Bush Presidency, Mike Green, the top Asian adviser to then President Bush strongly pushed the move. “They (the US Marines) want to be able to fly helicopters, drop out of planes and shoot at things, and you can’t do that in crowded Okinawa,” he said.

How many US military personnel might get moved is a good question. The Pentagon, it is said, wants to use existing Australian Bases instead of building new ones to be “politically sustainable”.

Also, can a city of 127,000 absorb 20,000 Marines. Robert Gates, the US defense secretary, said last November in Melbourne, “We don’t want to do things that would be politically difficult for the Australian government.” Perhaps they have learned something from their experience on Okinawa.

It seems likely that not all the Marines being rotated out of Okinawa will go to Darwin, but possibly a much smaller number. However, this comes with a long tail of dependents, family members, civilian support personnel and even family pets. Not surprisingly, the Australia’s minority Green Party is opposed to a US military presence in the country for more than political reasons.

The Greens are not the only ones unhappy with a potential move from Okinawa. In Guam, some of the Chamoros, the native population of Guam, are not enthusiastic about the prospect of a US move. Guam’s Lisalinda Nativdad of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice believes the Marines and dependents will increase Guam’s population from about 137,000 to 192,000. The Chamoran population is around 63,000 and already outnumbered in their homeland.

“We fiercely oppose the relocation to Guam, which could bring about the irreversible decline of our culture and further undermine our political rights,” said the Guahan Coalition and other Chamoran groups who have already petitioned the United Nations to stop any relocation.

Perhaps in anticipation of the Marines move, Japan’s Self Defense Forces (JSDF) staged their largest exercise ever in Okinawa and its outlying islands, which began on Nov. 10 and are ongoing. Based on the premise of islands in the Okinawa area coming under attack from the land sea and air, 35,000 JSDF personnel, six warships and 180 fighter planes were mobilized to repel the mock invasion, one of the largest JSDF exercises to ever take place in the Okinawa area.

For the first time, units of the JSDF stationed permanently in Hokkaido were moved to deal with a possible threat to Okinawa. From Hokkaido where they are currently deployed, 410 men of the JSDF Infantry Battalion along with four Type 90 main battle tanks, which are only stationed in Hokkaido with 50 other armored vehicles, traveled from the northernmost tip of Japan to its southernmost island.

Not having any military vessels with the sealift capacity to move them, the JSDF chartered civilian ferries and loaded the reminder of their tanks and armored cars onto JR freight trains to move them down to Okinawa. It was not exactly a Blitzkreig type reaction to any invasion of Japan.

After a presence of more than 60 years in Okinawa, moving part of the US Marines out of Okinawa has the potential to cause as many headaches as problems it will solve.

Having been part of the equation of power in Northeast Asia for a longtime, it remains to be seen how Japan will fill in the vacuum. How residents of Australia and Guam will deal with the huge influx of US troops looms large.

President Obama will visit Canberra, the capital of Australia, and then on Wednesday Darwin. He is the first serving US President to ever do so. At that time the basing agreement will probably be announced.

“It is important to wait for the President to visit Australia and for him and the Prime Minister to confirm what further defense cooperation arrangements we may have planned,” said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

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