Hawaii companies are playing a central role in designing and building a new Marine Corps base on Guam and other facilities in the Northern Marianas.
Camp Blaz, officially activated Oct. 1, is the Marines’ first new permanent base since 1952, part of an ambitious restructuring of U.S. forces in the region.
The Navy is awarding the contracts, but about $3 billion worth of work will actually be paid for by the Japanese government in accordance with an agreement between the U.S. and Japan in 2009, making the new base part of an international joint venture.
It’s also being built on ground where U.S. and Japanese troops once fought each other as bitter enemies.
The projects are part of the Defense Policy Review Initiative, an agreement that would relocate thousands of U.S. Marines from Japan and spread them to bases across the Pacific. The plan would see the Marine Corps relocate about 5,000 troops to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii and 1,300 to Australia.
“The Government of Japan is sharing the expense of relocating U.S. Marines to Guam by funding a portion of the construction projects” said Krista Cummins, a spokesperson for Hawaii-based Naval Facilities Command Pacific, in an email.
The collaboration between Japan and the U.S. is one of the largest U.S. defense construction initiatives in the Pacific, according to Cummins.
Japan spent $71 million on contracts for architectural planning to ASMD JV Partners, a joint venture that includes Hawaii architecture firms Design Partners Inc., Richard Matsunaga & Associates Architects, SSFM International and Architects Hawaii Ltd. along with Iowa-based Stanley Consultants and Guam-based EMC2 Consulting Engineers.
So far the Japanese government has spent about $1 billion on architectural planning, construction and environmental and cultural evaluations of sites.
The U.S. military’s heavy presence in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture has been a point of tension for years. Okinawa accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s land mass but hosts two-thirds of U.S. military bases in Japan — and about half of the 50,000 American troops in the country.
Persistent military training over the small, densely populated island has on occasion led to training accidents that impact local communities, including sometimes hitting schools. Military aircraft crashes have killed service members and occasionally wounded local residents over the years, leading to a significant pushback.
“Building a new base is like building a new city from scratch,” said Kendall Ellingwood, senior principal at Design Partners. His company has been designing several structures for the Marines in Guam under the auspices of ASMD JV Partners.
Ellingwood’s company has worked on U.S. military projects before, including those in Japan and South Korea, but he said that the Japanese government’s direct involvement with the contracts makes it unlike any project he’s ever worked on.
“You see the perspective of both countries,” he said.
He has frequent meetings with Japanese officials who want to see the designs and get updates. The pandemic has moved many of the meetings online, but he maintains regular contact with his Japanese counterparts.
“They ask a lot of questions, and just want to oversee and see that their money is used wisely,” said Ellingwood.
The Japanese spending is only to be used for projects in Guam and the Marianas and is limited to only infrastructure, housing and support services — not for weapons or offensive military capabilities.
But there are gray areas; some money is going to infrastructure that directly supports combat training.
The Japanese government is paying $149.5 million under a construction contract the U.S. military awarded to Hawaii-based Kajima USA and Guam-based Core Tech for urban combat training facilities at Anderson Airbase.
Ellingwood said that Japanese officials have also been pushing American military officials to open up more opportunities for Japanese companies to compete for contracts.
At least one Japanese company already has worked on a project in support of the DPRI. Japan-based Gushiken Architectural Engineering Co. formed a joint venture with Architects Hawaii and Guam-based Setiadi Architects to take on a $31.9 million design contract.
“The biggest challenge for the whole project is how they’re going to construct it,” said Ellingwood, noting that there may not be enough local laborers for such an ambitious construction project.
Japanese officials see that as a potential opportunity for more contracts. Japanese firms have expressed interest in being part of the construction and planners have floated the possibility of bringing in subcontractors and laborers from the Philippines and South Korea.
Many in Guam welcome the new facilities as a major economic opportunity. But the buildup has also caught China’s eye. Last month the Chinese military released a video depicting a simulated attack on the island.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, the son of a U.S. Marine and Okinawan woman, is a vocal critic of the U.S. military presence in his prefecture and advocates downsizing bases as quickly as possible. He visited Hawaii last year, meeting with Gov. David Ige and with Okinawan cultural groups and activists in Honolulu.
Many American military analysts also want the troop presence downsized. They worry concentrating so many troops at fixed bases in such a small area makes them vulnerable to Chinese or North Korean missile attacks.
Tensions between Japan and its neighbors have simmered in recent years. Japan and China have a longstanding territorial dispute over fishing and navigation rights around the Senkaku Islands near Okinawa.
Some Chinese military commanders have even suggested that Japan’s claim to Okinawa itself may be illegitimate, arguing that since it was once part of a kingdom that was a tributary state of ancient Chinese emperors Beijing could rightfully lay historic claim to the island.
“People in Okinawa want to see the U.S. military footprint on their island reduced, but they perfectly understand the strategic necessity of a U.S. military presence in Japan,” Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, told Civil Beat.
While Tamaki’s political career has been defined by his fierce criticism of the American military, he has also said that he ultimately still supports Japan’s alliance with the United States. Under current plans about half the Marines in Okinawa would remain.
Though there will be fewer Marines in Okinawa, military cooperation between Japan and the U.S. is actually expanding. Michishita said shared concerns about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the Chinese Navy’s attempts to assert control over critical trade routes in the South China Sea have driven both Japanese and American forces to train and coordinate more closely.
As Japanese warships joined the U.S. Navy in Hawaii for RIMPAC this summer, Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono in Guam as part of a broader Pacific tour that included a trip to Palau — which subsequently announced it will also be hosting new U.S. military installations as that tiny island nation’s relations with China sour.
After RIMPAC wrapped up in Hawaii, warships from Japan, Australia and South Korea sailed together to Guam for continued training with the U.S. Navy off the coast of the island territory.
Some residents of Guam and the Northern Marianas worry about the impact that new bases and live-fire training may have on the environment and on cultural sites across the islands.
Alongside architectural planning, the Japanese government is financing contracts for Honolulu-based International Archaeology and Pacific Consulting Services Inc. to survey potential cultural sites and artifacts across Guam and the Marianas while Kailua-based Sustainable Resources Group Intn’l, Inc. received a contract for environmental management services.
Several mainland companies also have contracts for these efforts.
The legacy of war looms large in the region. Guam and the Marianas were the site of some bloody battles between the U.S. and Japan, beginning with a Japanese invasion launched just after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan’s occupation of Guam and the Marianas was brutal, characterized by forced labor, sexual violence and other atrocities. When American troops returned, the fighting destroyed towns and killed thousands of local civilians caught in the crossfire before communities began to rebuild.
As part of the peace process, an agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments prevented local people in Guam from seeking compensation for war crimes, but this year the U.S. government agreed to compensate several families for Japanese atrocities.
Hawaii played a unique role in the reconciliation between the United States and Japan after the war, with Japanese American lawmakers like the late Sen. Daniel Inouye helping turn the former enemies into close allies through trade, travel, educational exchanges and military ties.
In an email, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said moving troops from Okinawa “addresses long-held safety concerns, provides new training opportunities and increases the United States’ ability to deter and defend in the Pacific, which will all strengthen the relationship between the United States and Japan.”
Hirono noted that Hawaii’s diverse population has continued to help build connections to other Pacific countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The people of Hawaii have a unique role to play in building durable cultural and economic ties with other countries in the region,” said Hirono. But she also stressed that building and maintaining those ties hinges on the “ability of people and goods to move freely throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”
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