• Kyodo, Bloomberg

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A senior U.S. official told Japanese officials in late January that Futenma Air Station will have to stay in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, for the time being because of the standoff over its relocation plan, sources close to bilateral relations said Sunday.

This suggests that the facility, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, is staying in the crowded city despite a formal bilateral agreement to return the land to Japanese control once a replacement facility is built for it elsewhere in the prefecture.

On Saturday, Japan and the United States reportedly agreed to move 4,700 marines in Okinawa to Guam instead of 8,000, delinking the transfer plan from the contentious Futenma relocation plan stipulated in the road map for realigning U.S. forces in Japan.

The developments have increased the likelihood that the relocation issue is headed for the back burner, which is likely to upset the already upset Okinawan public, which has been fighting the plan tooth and nail for well over a decade.

Okinawan residents have been pushing to move the base because of safety and noise concerns, but they also oppose moving it to Henoko, a less populated coastal area further north in Okinawa, and want it ousted from the prefecture instead.

The United States believes that it is crucial for the marines to retain an air facility in Okinawa and will therefore continue to press Japan to follow through on the 2006 agreement, which stipulates that Japan is to build a new air facility in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, to absorb the functions performed at Futenma, the sources said.

The U.S. comments about staying in Futenma were made during high-level trilateral talks on South Korea’s Jeju Island at the end of January. After making the statement, the U.S. official also said that progress on the Futenma relocation issue couldn’t be expected anytime soon, the sources said.

The U.S. side has been planning to conduct repair work at Futenma in the belief that the base will continue to be used.Both governments now plan to accelerate talks and are looking to review the accord that requires Japan to share the cost of moving the Okinawa-based marines to Guam.

The transfer of around 8,000 marines and 9,000 dependents from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam has been a pillar of the 2006 bilateral accord on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, in which progress on relocating Futenma was made a precondition for the troops’ move.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense is now considering rotating 4,000 of them through Australia, Subic Bay and perhaps a smaller base in the Philippines and Hawaii, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified because the plan hasn’t been announced.

The U.S. is realigning its forces in the Asia-Pacific as the Obama administration refocuses attention on the region after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the Pentagon is seeking to cut about $490 billion from projected defense spending over a decade.

But neither Japan nor the United States disagrees on the plan to keep around 10,000 marines in Okinawa even after the relocation plan is reviewed.

The central government submitted an environmental impact report to the Okinawa Prefectural Government at the end of last year in an effort to move the relocation project forward.

The two countries will likely officially announce the transfer of the 4,700 marines to Guam on Feb. 13, the sources said.

With the Guam transfer delinked from the base move, chances are growing for the entire road map for the U.S. forces realignment plan in Japan to be drastically reviewed, observers say.

Subsequently, the return of six facilities and land occupied by the U.S. military and south of the air force’s Kadena base in Okinawa will be also reconsidered, the sources said.

The road map says land south of the Kadena base will be returned after the Futenma base is moved to Nago and the marines are transferred to Guam.

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