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By Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States has begun talks with Japan about deploying mobile U.S. Marine units in Okinawa armed with anti-ship and air defense missiles that would work closely with Japanese forces on islands that prevent easy access to the Pacific for China's military, the Marine Corps commandant said on Thursday.
"You want to deter, to prevent any potential adversary from taking the next move," General David Berger said in a telephone interview. "If you are looking out from China, that's what you should see, a rock-solid alliance," he added.
In March, Berger published "Force Design 2030" a plan to trim aircraft numbers, dump most cannon artillery and cut heavy armor, including all its tanks, and create "Marine Littoral Regiments" equipped with missiles and drones that could deny an adversary control of contested areas by threatening their ships and planes.
That overhaul begins with tensions between the United States and China growing as Washington accuses Beijing of using the coronavirus pandemic to further territorial claims in the South China Sea and increase its influence elsewhere in Asia.
Beijing insists its intentions in the region are peaceful and has accused Washington of trying to drive a wedge between countries in Asia.
Japan's Okinawan islands are part of what military planners refer to as the "first island chain" stretching from Japan through the Philippines to Indonesia, that hems in China's growing forces.
In his proposal, Berger pointed to a shift in focus to "great power competition and a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region."
He said the Marine Corps will have an operational littoral regiment in Okinawa by 2027, with another in nearby Guam and a third in based in Hawaii.
The changes is Okinawa will not, however, mean an increase in troop numbers and will be carried out within the terms of the current U.S. military alliance with Japan, added the Marine commander, who said he will travel to Japan when coronavirus travel restrictions are lifted.
The goal will be to travel to Japan and meet their senior leadership "to explain where we are, and where we are heading."
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; editing by Jonathan Oatis)