Monday, October 19, 2009

Gates to visit Japan amid shift in US ties

Gates to visit Japan amid shift in US ties

Tuesday, 20 October 2009 04:25
by Romeo Carlos | Variety News Staff

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates left the nation’s capital Sunday for a week-long trip that will take him to Japan, Korea and Slovakia where he is expected to find ways to shore up allied support for the Afghanistan war, now entering its ninth year of conflict.

Gates is expected to travel to Japan to hold talks with a new government that has signaled a more independent stance toward Washington. Before heading on to Tokyo and Seoul, Gates will make a stopover in Hawaii to oversee a change in leadership at U.S. Pacific Command on Monday (Hawaii time).

Amid the recent announcement by the new Japanese government that it is withdrawing two naval ships from the Indian Ocean used as refueling stops for allies en route to Afghanistan, Great Britain saying this week it will deploy a symbolic force of 500 additional troops conditioned on NATO and the Afghanistan government doing more to fight the resurgent Taliban and indecision in Washington, D.C. about U.S troop increases, Gates will address the realignment of troops not only from Okinawa to Guam, but also South Korea.

Last week the Pentagon said Gates will meet with the new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who stated he will seek a "more equal" relationship with the U.S. The defense secretary is expected to take up the sensitive issue of U.S. Marines in Okinawa and the relocation of 8,000 service members and their dependents to Guam by 2014.

It is the first visit to that nation by a U.S. cabinet member since Sept. elections swept the Japanese Democratic Party into power and setting the stage for a transformative alliance structure between the world’s two largest economies and long-time allies.

During the visit Gates will emphasize the importance of an agreement struck with previous Japanese governments on the future of a controversial U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. Hatoyama's center-left government insists on a review of the agreement but U.S. officials have long indicated the administration was not ready to reopen negotiations which could forestall the Guam realignment and subsequent economic boom.

A flurry of Defense Department and Interior officials have visited the island in the past several weeks, along with a recent stopover by a congressional delegation. Local and federal officials have decried the level of frustration endured as the slow progress is made on the pending buildup strategy.

The Japanese prime minister has said he wants a review of the 2006 accord with Washington under which the current base would be closed, thousands of Marines moved to Guam, and others moved to a new U.S. base to be built by 2014 in an Okinawa coastal area. That delay would translate to further exasperations on Guam as the delay could stymie infusion of billions of dollars into the local economy.

The U.S. defense chief's trip to Japan comes in advance of a scheduled Nov. visit by President Barack Obama and just as a renewed debate in Japan about where to move the controversial Futenma Air Base - now located in a densely populated urban area of Okinawa.

Japanese press reported last week, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima had submitted a position paper to Hatoyama's government agreeing to letting U.S. troops stay on the island as long as the air base was moved away from its current urban setting.

After his visit to Japan, Gates heads to Seoul, South Korea where U.S. troops are transitioning from a base in the densely populated capital to an area just outside the urban limits. The shifting role in the defense posture with another Asian ally further increases the strategic importance of Guam to the future of defense department strategies.

From South Korea, Gates goes to Bratislava, Slovakia, to meet NATO defense ministers for frank talks focusing mostly on Afghanistan.

Obama is not expected to decide on a U.S. strategy for Afghanistan or Pakistan until after Gates returns from his trip. Administration officials have said a decision from the president on what to do about troop increases in the Afghan conflict will come before he departs for his own Asia trip next month.

Its seems just like federal and military officials have come to Guam with the message “be patient,” the defense secretary will take that same mantra to other allies directly and indirectly involved in the Afghanistan conflict and the new U.S. military realignment and global defense posture for the coming century.

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