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US-Japan mull Marine base plans at security talks

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

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Japanese counterparts are expected to announce a postponement in the relocation of the Futenma air station, which was due for completion by 2014.

Japan was not been able to win local assent for the plans, formalized in a 2006 agreement, 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.

A senior 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 Tuesday after the security talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

The talks will also address North Korea's nuclear program, Afghanistan, and missile defense.

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.

The plans have also met opposition in the Senate. 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 trying to rein in the budget deficit.

Japan, which would foot much of the multibillion-dollar relocation plan, 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.

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