Japan denies friction with US

November 2, 2009 12:00 am

, TOKYO, Nov 2 – Japan’s centre-left government on Monday denied US ties were being strained by a row over an American airbase, amid confusion over whether its foreign minister will travel to Washington this week.

The US State Department on Saturday said Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada would meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday, but within hours dropped mention of the meeting from Clinton’s schedule.

In Japan, media reports suggested Okada was still seeking a meeting late this week, ahead of a Tokyo visit next week by US President Barack Obama, but that he was busy with parliamentary duties on Friday.

Asked about the confusion, Japan’s top government spokesman Hirofumi Hirano told reporters on Monday: "It’s not that ties between Japan and the United States are strained, it’s just an administrative matter."

"At this point, nothing has been decided regarding such a trip," he added.

The new government took power in Japan in mid-September vowing less subservient ties with the US after decades of conservative rule in Japan.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama confirmed on Monday in parliament that his government would scrap in January a naval refuelling mission supporting the US-led campaign in Afghanistan.

His government has also promised to review a 2006 bilateral agreement on the roughly 47,000 US troops based in Japan — including the scheduled move of a US airbase on Okinawa island from an urban area to a coastal region by 2014.

Many Okinawans oppose the American presence and want the controversial US Marine Corps Futenma Air Base closed and moved off the island, rather than having it relocated to the coastal Camp Schwab site as previously agreed.

US government and military officials have stressed that Washington is in no mood to reopen talks on a deal that was years in the making.

Hatoyama has said the issue is unlikely to be resolved before Obama’s November 12-13 visit, while his ministers have floated sometimes contradictory ideas about how to resolve the issue.

On Okinawa, where Hatoyama’s left-leaning coalition partners made strong gains in recent elections, positions have also been hardening about the long-festering question of where US forces should be based.

Washington regards the southern island as a key staging post close to China, Taiwan and North Korea — but local residents have long been angered by aircraft noise, risk of accidents and crimes committed by American personnel.

The city assembly of Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture, on Monday adopted a statement that said: "Given the situation surrounding the Futenma Air Base, which is worsening year by year and which is going against residents’ wishes, we can never accept the relocation inside Okinawa."

The mayor of Nago city, site of the Camp Schwab relocation facility, on Monday denied the city was reconsidering its previous offer to host the US replacement base and voiced anger at Japan’s new government.

"I’m frustrated by comments made by ministers," said the mayor, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro. "I wonder if they are toying with our feelings."


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