By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Japan announced on Thursday a revised agreement on streamlining the U.S. military presence on Okinawa that will shift 9,000 Marines from that southern Japanese island to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.
The new plan, unveiled days before Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visits President Barack Obama, helps the allies work around the still unresolved, core dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site that had vexed relations for years.
Under the agreement, 9,000 U.S. Marines will relocate off Okinawa: 5,000 to Guam and the rest to other locations such as Hawaii and Australia, U.S. officials said.
The updated version of a long-delayed 2006 plan "outlines an improved U.S. Marine Corps force posture in the Asia-Pacific, one that is more capable and one that is more geographically distributed," said a senior U.S. Defense Department official.
"This presence is integral to our larger strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific," added the official.
Snags over Okinawa had raised questions about the viability of the Obama administration strategy of shifting U.S. forces from other regions to the Asia-Pacific to deal with nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea, the rapid military buildup of China and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Friction over U.S. bases intensified after the 1995 gang rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen. The case sparked widespread protests by Okinawans, who had long resented the American presence due to crime, noise and deadly accidents.
There are about 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan under a 1960 bilateral security treaty.
Okinawa, occupied by the United States from 1945-72, accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan's total land, but hosts three-quarters of the U.S. military facilities in the country in terms of land area.
"This has been ... bogged down for years, but now, we have been able to come up with a new approach delinking the Futenma relocation from other elements, like moving out Marine forces to Guam and returning some parts of Okinawa," said Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's ambassador to the United States.
"Things are going to start moving," he told a gathering at a think tank in Washington.
Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the deal was discussed widely with U.S. lawmakers, who had refused to fund the overhaul on Okinawa until the Futenma deadlock was resolved and the administration fully explained how the move would fit overall U.S. strategy.
"We think it breaks a very long stalemate ... that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems, that has made it difficult to deal with the critical and crucial issues that confront the United States and Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific," said Campbell.
'REBALANCING' TOWARD ASIA-PACIFIC
"This is really a key component of our strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region," a senior State Department official said.
"One of the key aspects of that is strengthening partnerships with regional allies. And, of course, Japan is a very important alliance partner," the official added.
The policy has also entailed closer U.S. military ties with The Philippines, Australia and Singapore
The agreement includes a $3.1 billion cash commitment from Japan for the move to Guam as well as for developing joint training ranges on Guam and on Tinian and Pagan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The previous agreement on the move to Guam had Japan providing $6.09 billion in support, with $2.8 billion in cash and the rest in financing arrangements. Because of the smaller footprint the Marines will have in Guam, the two sides decided they no longer needed the loans but agreed to a Japanese cash contribution of $3.1 billion.
Campbell acknowledged that more work needed to be done, including eventually finding a replacement for Futenma.
Proposed replacement sites for Futenma on the subtropical island that lies between Japan's main islands and Taiwan have met strong local opposition while Tokyo was in political disarray, going through six prime ministers in six years.
"Does this agreement answer every question? It does not. Is there more programmatic and technical work that is necessary? Yes," said Campbell.
"But at a fundamental level, we think this agreement moves the ball very substantially down the field in a way that no one would have anticipated a few months ago," he said.
Separating the move to Guam from the nettlesome Futenma issue frees up the allies to work more on cyber security, space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations and ballistic missile defense, the Pentagon official said.
That is "because we'd been spending so much time talking about the move from Futenma that we often were not making as much progress as we would have liked in other aspects of the alliance," the State Department official said.
Senators Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb - top members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had frozen Okinawa funding until their budgetary and strategic questions were answered - said some of their concerns were addressed.
"We still have many questions about the specific details of this statement and its implications for our force posture in the Asia-Pacific region," they said in a statement, which also vowed to keep working on "a mutually beneficial, militarily effective, and fiscally sustainable agreement" on Okinawa and Guam.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by Peter Cooney and Todd Eastham)