The United States is to shift 9,000 Marines out of Japan in a move Washington hopes will ease sometimes fractious relations with its ally over the huge American military presence.
The redeployment, which will see troops moved to Guam, Hawaii and Australia, will go ahead regardless of any progress on the moving of a busy airbase on Okinawa that had originally been a key plank of a deal with the US.
In a joint statement issued in Washington and Tokyo, the two sides said they remained committed to the relocation of the Futenma base from its present urban location to a coastal spot – a move that is heavily resisted in Okinawa.
The two governments “reconfirmed their view that (this) remains the only viable solution that has been identified to date,” the statement said.
The deal comes just ahead of a visit to Washington by prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, who will meet with President Barack Obama on Monday for what both sides hope will be a demonstration that the alliance is back on track.
Japan and the United States have long clashed over Okinawa, the site of sporadic tensions with US troops. Around half of the 47,000 US service personnel in Japan are based on the strategically located island, which is nearer to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo.
In 2006, the United States agreed to shift the Futenma air base – a longtime source of grievance as it lies in a crowded urban area – to a quiet stretch of seashore, with 8,000 Marines leaving Okinawa for Guam.
But some activists in Okinawa pressed for the base to be removed completely. The controversy felled one Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who failed to fulfill campaign pledges in 2009 to renegotiate the deal.
Speaking ahead of the official announcement, Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the deal would move relations forward.
“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,” Campbell said.
The statement said the total cost of the relocation to Guam was expected to be $8.6 billion, with a US official saying more than a third would be paid by Tokyo.
“The $3.1 billion dollar Japanese cash commitment… is significant and we particularly appreciate this commitment in the context of Japan’s fiscal challenges, which we fully recognise,” a senior official at the US defense department said.