Tokyo: Japan and the United States plan to settle a row over a US airbase this month, largely in line with Washington`s wishes, reports said on Thursday, a day before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Tokyo.
Under the deal, expected to be officially announced on Friday next week, the base would be relocated within Okinawa island rather than moved elsewhere, as agreed by previous conservative governments in Tokyo and Washington.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama would announce the news at a press conference on May 28, the Asahi Shimbun and other dailies said, citing unnamed sources.
Relations have been strained between the two allies since the centre-left Premier took power last September after a landslide poll victory, pledging to move the base out of Okinawa, where most residents oppose it.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has urged Hatoyama to stick with the original pact, arguing a strong US military presence is crucial for the defence of Japan and stability in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
Hatoyama appeared to concede that point in brief comments on Thursday.
"Now the Korean peninsula is growing tense," he said after an international panel concluded North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in March, killing 46 people, in findings that sparked an angry reaction from the communist regime.
"Considering situations like this in Asia, as well as for the peace of Japan, we are making our final efforts to reach a solution to this problem by the end of May," Hatoyama told reporters.
He was speaking a day before Hillary stops in Japan for several hours on her way to China and then South Korea on a week-long Asia tour.
Commenting on the base dispute, Singapore`s founding father Lee Kuan Yew said: "If Japan closes (US bases in) Okinawa, I`d say it`s a real setback for the deployment of American forces, which is not to the benefit of Asia."
"Stability and security in the East Asian regions (from) Korea down to Southeast Asia has been maintained by the Americans since the end of the last war in 1945," the former Premier said, speaking at a Tokyo business conference.
"There must be a balance between China and the US."
In Japan, the festering base dispute has hammered Hatoyama`s approval ratings and provoked mass anti-base rallies, both on Okinawa and other islands that his government has been eyeing as potential alternative base locations.
With upper house elections slated for July, poll ratings for the Premier`s cabinet have plunged from over 70 percent last year to around 20 percent.
The Futenma base has long angered locals because of aircraft noise, pollution, the risk of crashes and friction with American service personnel, especially after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US troops.