Chances growing Japan may sign off on US base: Report

Last Updated: Saturday, October 24, 2009 - 17:49

Tokyo: The Asahi newspaper reported on Saturday that chances are growing Japan may sign off on a plan to reposition a US Marine air base, which would help clear the way for a realignment of US troops in the country.
An agreement would ease growing tension with the United States over the reorganisation, an issue which could fray ties with Washington.

The Sankei newspaper reported on Friday Japan would tell US President Barack Obama when he visits next month that it would craft a new plan by the end of the year to relocate the base on the southern island of Okinawa, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said there had been no such decision.

The Asahi said Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had indicated that a decision would be made on the issue by the end of the year. It gave no other details.

Since it would be difficult to find an alternate location for the base by that time, chances were growing that the government would have to accept the original plan or one with slight modifications, the Asahi said.

Concerns are growing about friction over the long-planned reorganisation of the US military presence in Japan, the first big test of ties between Washington and a new Japanese government that wants more equal relations with its closest security ally.

How Hatoyama copes with the dispute could also affect voter support for his month-old government, now riding high at about 70 percent in most polls, especially if he looks indecisive.

Central to the reorganisation deal is a plan to move the functions of the Futenma air base -- located in a crowded urban area of Okinawa -- to a more remote part of the island.

It also involves shifting 8,000 Marines to the US territory of Guam, partly at Japan`s expense.

Hatoyama had said he wanted the base moved off the island, which lies 1,600 km (1,000 miles) from the Japanese mainland in the Pacific Ocean. But US officials have ruled that out, saying it would undermine broader security agreements.

Foreign Minister Katsyua Okada said on Friday it was unrealistic to consider shifting the functions of Futenma off Okinawa.

"Considering that ... the more time we take, the longer the danger at Futenma continues, moving the base outside Okinawa is not a realistic option," Okada said.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates this week made a blunt call for the planned realignment to be implemented and for Tokyo to decide on the issue before Obama`s November 12-13 visit to Japan, but Hatoyama said on Friday there was no need to rush a decision.

Asked if the United States wanted Japan to make a decision by Obama`s visit, US Ambassador to Japan John Roos told Asahi TV in an interview on Friday: "I think the timing of the decision is up to the Prime Minister and his government. It`s really not up to the United States to set a deadline."

"The important thing is that the process move very expeditiously to a conclusion," he said.

Bureau Report

First Published: Saturday, October 24, 2009 - 17:49

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