WASHINGTON – The United States and Japan, hoping to break a stalemate over the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, are discussing a plan to transfer nearly 5,000 troops to Guam despite their failure to replace a major Marine base on the southern Japan island.
The transfer, a key to U.S. troop restructuring in the Pacific, has been in limbo for years because it was linked to the closure and replacement of the strategically important base, which has been fiercely opposed by local residents.
"We are not at a point where we can discuss the details, but we are looking into ways to reduce the burden on Okinawa as soon as possible," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told Parliament on Tuesday, a day after talks on the restructuring plan began in Washington.
The new proposal would delink the transfer and base closure issues, according to a senior Japanese official.
While talks on the base's replacement plan would continue, about 4,700 Marines -- instead of the 8,000 agreed to in 2006 -- would be moved to Guam under the new plan, Seiji Maehara, the ruling party's policy chief, told reporters Sunday.
"We would go ahead first with less than 5,000 troops, around 4,700, being transferred to Guam," he said.
Japanese media reported the remaining 3,300 troops would be moved to Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines or other locations on a rotational basis.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to comment on numbers or timing, but said Washington continues to "pursue a military presence in Japan and in the Asia-Pacific that's operationally resilient, that's geographically distributed, and that's politically sustainable."
Though it leaves the Okinawa base issue unresolved -- and cuts the number of Marines to go to Guam -- the compromise would be a big breakthrough in what has been a serious irritant in the otherwise robust security relationship between Tokyo and Washington.
It would also allow the United States to move forward with a regionwide restructuring of its troop deployments at a time when China is rising as a much more significant military power.
With beefed-up Navy, Air Force and Marine facilities, Guam -- a tiny U.S. territory about 3,700 miles (5,955 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii and 1,500 miles (2,415 kilometers) south of Tokyo -- is set to become a hub of Washington's military strategy in the Pacific.
But the Okinawa standoff has cast doubts on the multibillion dollar Guam buildup, originally scheduled to begin in 2014.
The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close down the Okinawa base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, after an uproar over the rape of a local schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen. MCAS Futenma has long been a symbol to many Okinawans of the U.S. military's large footprint on their island, and the agreement was intended to appease Okinawan sensitivities.
About half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are on Okinawa, which is one of Japan's smallest prefectures (states). Complaints over base-related crime, accidents and overcrowding there are endemic.
Talks to build a replacement facility quickly stalled over Okinawan demands the new base be moved elsewhere in Japan or overseas.
After another public outcry following a helicopter crash in 2004, the two governments agreed in 2006 to further reduce the burden on Okinawa by transferring about 8,000 of the 18,000 Marines on the island to Guam -- if a substitute for Futenma could be found.
That also failed to appease Okinawan opposition and the standoff over the replacement plan has only deepened in recent years.
Reports of the proposal immediately raised concerns on Okinawa that it would sap the momentum away from efforts to close Futenma, although officials in Tokyo and Washington stressed they remain committed to replacing the base with another facility in a less congested part of the island.
"I think the current plan is very bad for Okinawa because it could take the big issue -- the promise to close down Futenma -- off the table," said Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus. "This kind of political game-playing is not going to please anyone here. We feel like our efforts over the past 15 years have been wasted."