(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 the southern Japanese island to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.
The new plan, unveiled days before Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda meets President Barack Obama in Washington, helps the allies work around the central but still-unresolved dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site that has vexed relations for years.
“I am very pleased that, after many years, we have reached this important agreement and plan of action. I applaud the hard work and effort that went into crafting it,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement.
“Japan is not just a close ally, but also a close friend.”
Under the agreement, 9,000 U.S. Marines will be relocated. Five thousand will go to Guam and the rest to other sites such as Hawaii and Australia, a joint U.S.-Japanese statement said.
The updated version of a long-delayed 2006 plan was needed to achieve “a U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable,” the statement said.
Snags over Okinawa had raised questions about the viability of the Obama administration’s 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.
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 de-linking 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.
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