TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and the United States said on Wednesday they have started talks to transfer U.S. Marines to Guam from the southern Japan island of Okinawa despite little progress being made on the planned relocation of a U.S. airbase on Okinawa, a step forward in an issue that has long been an irritant in bilateral ties.
A shift of U.S. Marines to the Pacific island of Guam had been dependent on progress in the relocation of the Futenma airbase within Okinawa. But Tokyo has struggled to win local consent to the relocation plan, threatening to stall the Marines' move out of Okinawa.
Japan and the United States agreed in 2006 to move 8,000 Marines to Guam and relocate the Futenma airbase in Ginowan city to a less populous area of Okinawa to ease the burden on local residents, who associate U.S. bases with noise, pollution and crime.
The two security allies said they are reviewing the number of U.S. troops moving to Guam, but the Marines' presence on Okinawa after the planned realignment would not change from what was planned in the 2006 agreement.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said last week that Okinawa will still host about 10,000 Marines after the planned transfer, compared with 18,000 Marines currently based on the island, strategically located near China, which has rapidly expanded and modernized its armed forces.
The move to expedite the transfer of U.S. forces in Okinawa comes at a time when the Pentagon is under pressure to cut spending, including costs associated with the Marines' move to Guam, and the United States is putting its security focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Japanese newspapers said on Sunday that the United States was considering transferring 4,700 U.S. troops instead of 8,000, to Guam, and a smaller number of Marines to U.S. bases in countries such as the Philippines and Australia.
The two allies said on Wednesday they remain committed to the existing plan to relocate the Futenma facility from Ginowan to the Henoko area in central Okinawa's Nago city.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Watson)