US military's Pacific expansion going ahead
Sean Dorney in Guam
for Correspondents Report, ABC
November 1, 2009, 4:13 pm
The massive relocation of thousands of American servicemen and their families from Okinawa, Japan to the US territory of Guam in the Pacific is set to go ahead despite funding concerns.
Japan's new government appears to be wavering on a commitment by its predecessor to pour $US6 billion into the relocation, which is estimated will cost between $US 10 billion and $US 15 billion.
United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Tokyo about two weeks ago attempting to force the issue.
Guam has been a US territory since 1898; it was captured by Japan in 1941 during World War II but was liberated by the US in 1944.
The island's population - currently about 173,000 - will dramatically increase by more than 25 per cent in the four to six years of relocation, according to Paul Shintaku, who works for the Governor of Guam as the director of Joint Guam Build-up Office.
"It's probably the biggest build-up in the Pacific since World War Two," he said.
"[We are relocating] 19,000 troops, service members - 19,000 dependents.
He says 8,000 of these officers are Marines, who will bring with them 9,000 family members.
The existing Anderson Air Force Base will be expanded to include the air elements of the Marine Corps while a new marine base will be right next door.
The construction list also includes barracks, houses, playing fields, gyms and "everything that goes into building a small town", Mr Shintaku said.
'Love affair' with US
The Guam's Chamber of Commerce's treasurer, Joe Arnett, says there is overwhelming support on Guam for the influx of marines and their dependants.
"The Chamber of Commerce has conducted a couple of surveys done by an independent marketing firm to test the waters to see what the population as a whole feels about this immense change in the build-up here," he said.
"In both cases - one done two years ago and one done as little as six months ago - the approval rating is up to 80 per cent or more."
Mr Arnett says the people of Guam are wholly devoted to their sovereign land.
"It is a patriotic place - very much so," he said.
"Obviously there's a little World War Two history here - [Guam] is the only American soil really conquered by a foreign power.
"The subscription rates here in Guam for the military are - per capita - as high as any place in the nation."
Marine Captain Neil Ruggiero - a public affairs officer with the Joint Guam Program Office - says the people of Guam "have a love affair" with the US military.
"The main road - north-south - is called Marine Corps Drive," he said. "The biggest holiday of the year is Liberation Day."
At the Guam International Airport there is a room with three walls covered in photos of the Micronesians who have been killed fighting with the American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Outside the Guam Airport is a sign with the slogan We Support Our Troops.
Guam will have a cost to pay in the expansion though: Mr Shintaku says the island's government is still trying to work out exactly how much it is responsible for.
"We're looking at ... $US 6 billion - that's quite a change for the local government and the local economy to bear," Mr Shintaku said.
However Frank Campillo - chairman of the Guam Chamber of Commerce - says the island's business community has much to gain from the expansion and has done a lot of preparation.
"The capital investment is tremendous and that creates a lot of activity in many different aspects, whether it is financial; whether it is infrastructure; whether it is construction," he said.
Guam's economy is currently doing quite well, with Japanese tourists flocking to the island to enjoy its all-year-round tropical climate.
For many Guam's surfing is closer and more convenient than Australia's Gold Coast and its downtown is a shopping Mecca, not only for the tourists but for much of Micronesia.
While there are concerns about the social impacts the relocation of military personnel will cause, Mr Campillo says these are controllable.
"We understand that some of the social impacts that the island of Okinawa had were with the Marines going outside, drinking a little bit and getting a little bit rowdy," he said.
"So since we understand what the potential problems could be, then I think we have an opportunity to address them in a manner that's going to be effective for everybody."
The US Defence Department has commissioned a major social impact study on the relocation, which is due to begin late next year.
Now the question everybody on Guam would like an early answer to is whether the new Japanese Government will honour the deal struck by its predecessor to contribute billions of dollars to the move.