By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and the United States agreed on Wednesday to decouple the transfer of thousands of U.S. Marines to Guam from the southern Japan island of Okinawa from plans to relocate a base on Okinawa, a step forward in resolving an irritant in relations.
The shift of U.S. Marines to the Pacific island of Guam had been linked to progress in relocating the Futenma airbase on Okinawa. But Tokyo has struggled to win the consent of islanders' to the relocation plan.
The new approach followed discussions this week in Washington between senior diplomats of the two sides.
The decision to expedite the transfer of U.S. forces in Okinawa coincides with pressure on the Pentagon to cut spending, including costs associated with the move to Guam, and a new U.S. emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.
"Rather than choosing an option where nothing moves forward, I took a step, under Prime Minister (Yoshihiko) Noda's guidance, to first realise the reduction of burden on people in Okinawa," Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told a news conference.
Japan and the United States agreed in 2006 to move 8,000 Marines to Guam and move the Futenma airbase in Ginowan city to a less populated part of the island to assuage residents who associate U.S. bases with noise, pollution and crime.
There are a total of about 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.
The two security allies issued a statement before the news conference saying they were reviewing the number of U.S. troops moving to Guam. But the Marines' presence on Okinawa after the planned move would not change from what was agreed upon in 2006.
Gemba said last week that Okinawa would still host about 10,000 Marines after the planned transfer, compared with 18,000 now on the island, located near China, which has rapidly expanded and modernized its armed forces.
In a statement issued in Washington that did not discuss troop numbers, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the delinking allowed both countries to "work the details of and make progress on each effort separately, yet we remain fully and equally committed to both efforts."
Little said Washington would engage in more bilateral talks with Tokyo to "determine the next steps to mitigate the impact of the Marine presence on the Okinawan people, develop Guam as a strategic hub with an operational Marine Corps presence on Guam; and maintain a presence in the region that is geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable."
Japanese newspapers reported on Sunday that the United States was considering transferring 4,700 troops instead of 8,000, to Guam, with smaller numbers to countries such as the Philippines and Australia.
RELOCATING OKINAWA BASE
On the Futenma relocation, Gemba said both sides remained committed to the existing plan to move the airbase from Ginowan to Nago in central Okinawa.
"I would like to make it crystal clear that we will never let the Futenma airbase remain fixed at the current location," he said.
The Futenma facility is surrounded by more than 100 schools, hospitals and shops. Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka calls it the world's most dangerous airbase.
The Mayor of Nago, however, restated his opposition to the relocation plan, Kyodo news agency reported.
"We cannot put up with an additional burden stemming from the construction of a new military base," Susumu Inamine said, noting that 11 percent of city's total land was already occupied by U.S. military facilities.
Inanime said in a talk in Washington on Tuesday that "it is wrong to consider this as a domestic Japanese issue only."
Disputes surrounding the Futenma relocation has bedevilled not only U.S.-Japan security ties, but also posed major problems
for the Democratic Party government first elected in 2009.
Ties with Washington were strained after the election after then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sought to keep his campaign promise to move the Futenma base off the island.
The government, however, could find no alternative site and was forced to reaffirm the 2006 agreement. Hatoyama stepped down.
Comments by a Defence Ministry official on the Futenma relocation offended many residents of Okinawa last year and eventually cost then-Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa his job.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Michael Watson and Vicki Allen)