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U.S.-Japan Mull Marine Base Plans at Security Talks

WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. and Japanese officials will discuss Tuesday how to salvage costly plans to relocate a U.S. Marine air station on Okinawa that face opposition in both countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will host Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa for security talks in Washington that will reaffirm the close ties between staunch allies but also highlight an issue that has complicated their relationship.

They are expected to announce a postponement in the planned relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma that was due for completion by 2014. A senior U.S. administration official told reporters Monday that the U.S. remained committed to the plan, but there would be a readjustment in the scheduling. He did not elaborate.

The official requested anonymity as the formal announcement is expected after Tuesday's talks, that will also address North Korea's nuclear program, Afghanistan, and missile defense.

The delay has been widely anticipated as Japan's government has failed to win local assent for the plans, formalized in a 2006 agreement with the U.S., although they are designed to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the 47,000 American troops in Japan. Many of the islanders resent the presence of the U.S. forces.

Under the agreement, Marine air operations would be shifted to a less crowded part of the island, where a new airfield would be built. Some 8,000 Marines would also be shifted to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam by 2014.

Japan's previous prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, was forced to resign last year after promising and failing to get Marines off Okinawa altogether.

An influential group of U.S. senators has also weighed in on the debate, saying the current plans are unaffordable and unworkable.

A defense spending bill approved last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee would prohibit funding for the relocation without first conducting studies into alternatives -- a move likely to be welcomed by lawmakers as U.S. looks to rein in its massive budget deficit.

Japan, which would foot much of the multibillion dollar relocation bill, faces its own financial burdens after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country's northern coastline and left about 23,000 people dead or missing. Damage is estimated at $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.

That disaster, however, also underscored the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, as the American military mounted a massive humanitarian assistance campaign that was well-received in Japan.