Wednesday, November 18, 2009

U.S. again urges Japan to implement base pact in high-level talks

U.S. again urges Japan to implement base pact in high-level talks

Nov 17 09:22 AM US/Eastern

(AP) - TOKYO, Nov. 17 (Kyodo) — The United States reiterated its demand Tuesday that Japan implement a 2006 bilateral pact on the transfer of a U.S. military airfield in Okinawa during the first meeting of a working group on the thorny issue involving high-ranking officials from the two countries, Japanese officials said.

While the participants agreed on the need to "expeditiously" seek a resolution of the issue involving the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station, a senior U.S. defense official warned a delay in finding a solution may change the stance of the U.S. Congress which supports the transfer of thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam -- a plan also included in the accord on the U.S. forces realignment.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters the same day he would seriously consider the outcome of the reviewing process under the working group.

"If Japan and the United States come up with one conclusion as a result of the (high-level) consultations, I would naturally need to take it as the gravest decision," he said.

The ministerial-level meeting in Tokyo, which Japan and the United States agreed to set up a week ago, was attended by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa from the Japanese side.

From the United States, the participants included U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, who represents U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The latest meeting followed an accord between Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama last Friday in Tokyo to seek an early settlement of the base relocation issue, which was widely interpreted as sidestepping a decision on a potential flashpoint that could undermine the countries' security alliance.

Wallace Gregson, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, and Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, also attended the meeting.

Gregson repeated Washington's stance that the existing plan is the only viable option, according to the Japanese officials.

Schiffer was quoted as telling Japan the U.S. government is working hard to realize the transfer of the Marines but he cannot deny the possibility of a change in response by Congress if the current unstable situation continues.

The U.S. side did not specifically refer to a time by which the working group should reach a conclusion, the Japanese officials said. But Kitazawa told reporters he and Okada share the understanding that "expeditiously" means "reaching a certain degree of conclusion by the end of this year."

The defense minister said budget compilation procedures in both countries "require an urgent" resolution of the deadlock over the base relocation issue. The Japanese government is scheduled to draft the state budget for fiscal 2010 starting next April by the end of the year.

Roos also told reporters after the meeting, "We share a belief that this issue should be resolved expeditiously."

He also said, "For our part, we have offered our judgment as to the best way forward," but did not elaborate. The Japanese officials said the envoy's remarks apparently suggest Japan should abide by the existing transfer plan.

The officials said the next working group session will likely be held within weeks, rather than in a month, to swiftly review the past bilateral negotiations that led to the 2006 accord.

Tuesday's move is expected to accelerate adjustments between Tokyo and Washington and also within the Japanese government, which has yet to present a clear position on the issue involving the transfer of the Futemma Air Station.

Under the working group, the Japanese and U.S. officials will study how the two countries reached the 2006 accord to relocate the airfield from a downtown residential area of Ginowan to the less densely populated city of Nago in northern Okinawa by 2014.

The accord is part of a broader Japan-U.S. agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and also involves the transfer of around 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. It was agreed on under a previous Japanese government led by the Liberal Democratic Party, which is now the main opposition party.

The working group got off to a rocky start, with Hatoyama saying that Japan will engage in the talks without regarding the 2006 accord as a premise.

Differences among Japanese Cabinet members are compounding the issue, with Kitazawa indicating his support for the existing deal but Okada floating the idea of transferring the air station to the nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base.

Participants in Tuesday's meeting also touched on the function of the Kadena base, but the Japanese officials refrained from explaining the exchanges in detail because it is related to the review process.

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