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Clinton plays down row over air base

HONOLULU, Jan 12 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to defuse a dispute over a US air base in Japan as she arrived in Hawaii on Monday for talks with her Japanese counterpart Katsuya Okada.

Launching her fourth Asia tour since becoming the chief US diplomat a year ago, Clinton said Washington intends to "exercise influence" in Asia for another century and serve as a stabilizing force against China\’s rising power.

Clinton, speaking to reporters on the way to Honolulu on the eve of talks with Okada, played down the dispute over the relocation of the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa that has caused tension in the post-war alliance.

"The significance of our meeting is to reaffirm the centrality of our 50-year-old alliance," Clinton said on a tour that will also take her to Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.

Tokyo\’s relations with its most important ally been strained over the Futenma base, which Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has suggested should be moved off the southern island of Okinawa or even outside Japan altogether.

"It provides stability for the region. And I think it\’s much bigger than any one particular issue," Clinton said of the base.

The center-left Hatoyama, who took power in September, has pledged to review past agreements on the US military presence, including plans to shift Futenma within Okinawa, and to deal with Washington on a more "equal" basis.

But Clinton urged patience as a new party adjusts to power in Japan and put a positive spin on US ties with the new government, praising it for setting up a five-billion-dollar fund for Afghanistan.

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"So we see our relationship with Japan as very broad and deep, and security is obviously a critical part of that, but it is by no means the only part," she said.

Yomiuri newspaper and other reports said Sunday that Clinton and Okada will make final arrangements Tuesday for an anniversary statement by the US and Japanese leaders stressing the contribution of their alliance to global peace.

The security treaty, signed on January 19, 1960, has formed the bedrock of the post-war Japan-US alliance, under which pacifist Japan relies on a massive US military presence to guarantee its security.

During her two-day stop, Clinton will visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, which commemorates those who died in the Japanese surprise attack on December 7, 1941 that brought the United States into World War II.

She will then travel to Papua New Guinea, for talks on climate change and economic development, before heading to New Zealand and Australia, where she will discuss similar issues, as well as international security.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, said Clinton will also seek advice from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks Chinese, about how the United States can better work with China.

China\’s support is key for US goals in curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea as well as combating climate change.

For her first overseas trip as chief diplomat, Clinton visited Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China in February last year. She later traveled to India and Thailand in July, then Singapore and the Philippines in November.

Her repeated visits to Asia are a "signal that the United States intends to be a leader and exercise influence in this region for this century as well as last century," Clinton said.

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"There was a general sense on the part of our allies and partners in the region that we were withdrawing," she said, suggesting the previous administration of president George W. Bush had neglected the region.

"But people want to see that the United States is fully engaged in Asia so that, as China rises, there is a presence of the United States as a force for peace and stability, as a guarantor of security."

Clinton played down the risk of tension with China as President Barack Obama\’s administration supports the sale of defensive arms to Taiwan and engages with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.

"What I\’m expecting is that we actually have a mature relationship that fits the description that was given at the summit between our two presidents that it be positive, cooperative, and comprehensive," she said.

"That means that it doesn\’t go off the rails when we have differences of opinion."

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