Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Japan minister: No U.S. base decision before Obama visit

Japan minister: No U.S. base decision before Obama visit

Wed Oct 21, 2009 10:46pm EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan cannot sign off on a planned reorganization of U.S. troops in the country before President Barack Obama visits Tokyo next month, its foreign minister said on Thursday, after the U.S. defense secretary bluntly called for the deal to be implemented.

Friction over the military realignment deal could be the first big test for ties between the United States and Japan's new Democratic Party-led government, which has pledged to steer a diplomatic course less dependent on its closest security ally.

The month-old government's stance has prompted concerns that security relations between the world's two biggest economies could suffer at a time when China's economic clout and military power are growing and North Korea remains unpredictable.

The daily Yomiuri newspaper said U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Tuesday that Japan should decide before Obama's November 12-13 visit to go ahead with a plan to move a U.S. Marine air base to a less crowded part of Japan's southern Okinawa island.

Okada told private broadcaster TBS that more time was needed.

"It won't be the case that in such a short period of time, we will accept what the United States is saying and do it just because it is an agreement between Japan and the United States," Okada said.

A broad deal to reorganize U.S. forces in Japan was agreed in 2006 between Washington and Japan's long-dominant conservative party, which was ousted by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party in an August election.

Central to the deal is a plan to move the functions of the Futenma air base to northern Okinawa, while shifting 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, partly at Japan's expense.

Hatoyama had said he wants the base moved off the island, where many complain about crime, noise, pollution and accidents associated with U.S. bases, but U.S. officials have ruled that out, saying it would undermine broader security arrangements.

In a two-day visit that ended on Wednesday, Gates pressed hard for the realignment deal to go ahead without major changes.

"Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

"Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa."

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Linda Sieg and Dean Yates)

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