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US to consider Japan base alternatives

by Staff Writers
Gatineau, Canada (AFP) March 29, 2010
The United States promised Monday it would at least consider Japan's ideas on a military base, which has been a growing thorn in relations between the two allies.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of a gathering in Canada, after he made the rounds in Washington sounding out top officials on alternatives to a 2006 deal.

Japan's six-month-old left-leaning government includes coalition partners adamantly opposed to the agreement, which would take Futenma air base out of a crowded urban area but still leave it on the island of Okinawa.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that Japan has shared "its current thinking with regards to the Futenma issue, which will be carefully considered."

"We respect Japan's request to explore alternatives," Whitman said. "We'll conduct these discussions through diplomatic channels."

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said separately that the United States will be "evaluating their ideas" and "will hold further discussions with Japan" on the Futenma row.

The United States has repeatedly urged Japan to stick to the 2006 deal, saying it was the best solution to ease the burden on Okinawa while maintaining the defense of the region.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Barack Obama's administration has not changed its view but "obviously if Japan has updated thinking, we'll listen and we'll evaluate what they tell us."

Okada met at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Robert Gates before heading to the White House to confer with Obama's national security adviser James Jones.

Okada later Monday held talks with Clinton near Ottawa, where foreign ministers of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations are meeting.

Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama said that the talks were aimed at helping Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government come up with a "concrete alternative" by the end of May.

Despite the row, Clinton and Okada agreed to cooperate on other issues including the direction of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Japan hosts the APEC summit later this year followed by the United States in 2011.

In a joint statement, Clinton and Okada said they would work to make sure APEC stresses human security by taking up food availability, climate change and disaster preparedness.

In one issue close to Clinton's heart, the two countries said they would organize a "Women's Entrepreneurial Summit" to encourage women around the Asia-Pacific region to become business leaders.

The United States has 47,000 troops in Japan as part of a security alliance reached after World War II, when Tokyo was stripped of its right to maintain a military.

Okinawa -- a subtropical island chain which was under US administration until 1972 -- plays host to more than half of the troops, despite accounting for a minuscule amount of Japan's total land mass.

The United States set up Futenma, a Marine air base, in Okinawa in 1945 as it took the island in one of World War II's bloodiest battles.

But since then, the sprawling city of Ginowan has developed around the base, raising concerns among residents about noise and accidents.

Under the plan sealed in 2006, Futenma's facilities would be shifted to reclaimed land on a quiet stretch of the subtropical island and some 8,000 Marines would leave for the US territory of Guam.

Okada is floating alternatives including shifting Futenma's operations to various US bases around Okinawa, with some functions also shifting to Kyushu -- one of mainland Japan's four islands.


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