TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States and Japan have agreed to tweak a six-year-old agreement on Marines based on the southern island of Okinawa, allowing Washington to deploy forces to the Pacific island of Guam regardless of the debate over moving a disputed airbase.
The Guam deployment had been held hostage by a political stalemate in Japan over the shifting of the Futenma base to another site on Okinawa, an issue given added importance in recent years by China's growing military might in the region.
Japanese newspapers said the new plan would allow Washington to shrink the expensive Guam relocation plan at a time when it is under pressure to cut defense spending because of deficit woes even as it turns its attention to China.
Japan and the United States agreed in 2006 to relocate Futenma to a less populated area of Okinawa, a reluctant host to around half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
The Futenma relocation was part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces that would shift some 8,000 troops to Guam.
Last June, the two allies agreed to drop their 2014 deadline for the completion of the dual package.
Newspapers said the two countries would make an announcement as early as Feb 13 on a revision of the 2006 agreements, including a transfer in advance of 4,700 U.S. troops, instead of 8,000, to Guam, regardless of the Futenma issue.
U.S.-Japan talks are to start in Washington on Monday. On Friday, both countries said they remained committed to the 2006 Realignment Roadmap.
The revision, however, would lower the visibility of the Futenma debate and could thus present Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with protest from opposition parties, which control parliament's upper house and can block bills.
The issue of U.S. troops on Okinawa has been a persistent problem for successive Japanese governments.
Many residents of the southern Japanese island associate the U.S. bases with crime, pollution and accidents. Noda's predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, jolted the alliance when his Democratic Party took power for the first time in 2009 and he sought to stick to a campaign promise to move the Futenma base off the island.
He was forced to resign after failing to find an alternative and both Naoto Kan, who succeeded Hatoyama as premier, and Noda, who took office last September, recommitted Tokyo to the 2006 deal.
(Reporting by Risa Maeda; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Nick Macfie)