The United States and Japan have dropped a deadline for moving a U.S. Marine Corps air station, but reaffirmed their commitment to the overall plan to realign the U.S. military presence in the country and reduce the American footprint on the island of Okinawa.
The announcement came Tuesday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.
After the so-called two plus two talks, Defense Minister Kitazawa said the governments had "decided to remove the deadline for 2014."
Secretary Gates, however, said the U.S. considered it "critical to move forward," with the relocation of the Futenma air station.
Residents of Okinawa, the smallest of Japan's provinces, have long been frustrated by the large U.S. presence on the island of 1.3 million people. About half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based on Okinawa. The bases, some of which were Japanese military bases before World War II, sit in what has become a heavily populated area.
The plan signed in 2006 calls for closing the Futenma air station in central Okinawa, and moving its functions to a smaller U.S. base in the island's rural north. In addition, the U.S. plans to move about 8,000 Marines, their families and civilian support staff to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. The deal calls for Japan to pay for much of the project, which is expected to cost more than $10 billion to build new facilities on Okinawa and Guam.
The decision to delay the move was widely expected, in part because of Japan's effort to recover from a massive earthquake and tsunami, and because of the Japanese government's struggle to get approval for the plan from the Okinawans.
Many of the island's residents may be unhappy with the delay. Some have long called for all bases on the island to be closed, particularly Futenma, which many people consider to be unsafe and too noisy to be in an urban area.
And some U.S. politicians may be unhappy with decision to stick with the plan, even at a slower pace. Three influential U.S. senators have recently called for reconsidering it. Senator John McCain and senators James Webb and Carl Levin call the plan unworkable and unaffordable. They have advocated other ideas for streamlining U.S. forces in Asia to be able to deter threats from North Korea and to maintain peace in the region.
The Senate Armed Forces Committee last week voted to halt funding for the plan. That must still be confirmed by the entire Senate and the House of Representatives.