TOKYO - Japan said on Thursday it could not sign off on a planned reorganisation of U.S. troops in the country before President Barack Obama visits Tokyo next month, after the U.S. defense secretary bluntly called for the deal to be implemented.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Japan needed more time before making a decision and its priority was to come foward with its new plan to assist Afghanistan before Obama's visit.
I understand they want to hurry... but ending up with a bad solution by rushing a decision will create a problem for the future, Hatoyama said, adding that he did not regard Obama's visit as the deadline for Japan to reach a decision.
Friction over the military realignment pact could be the first big test of ties between the United States and Japan's new government, which has pledged to steer a diplomatic course less dependent on its closest security ally.
The month-old government's stance has prompted concerns that security relations between the world's two biggest economies could suffer at a time when China's economic clout and military power are growing and North Korea remains unpredictable.
According to Japanese media accounts, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Tuesday that Japan should decide before Obama's Nov. 12-13 visit to go ahead with a plan to move a U.S. Marine air base on Okinawa in southern Japan to a less crowded part of the island.
Washington also wants Japan to come forward with new forms of assistance to Afghanistan if Tokyo follows through with plans to halt a naval refuelling mission backing coalition forces.
Hatoyama said Tokyo should be ready to present new forms of assistance to Afghanistan when Obama visits.
For President Obama, assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan is a much bigger theme... So I think it's our priority to come up with Japan's steps to support them, Hatoyama said.
A broad deal to reorganise U.S. forces in Japan was agreed in 2006 between Washington and Japan's long-dominant conservative party, which was ousted by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party in an August election.
Central to the deal is a plan to move the functions of the Futenma air base to northern Okinawa, while shifting 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, partly at Japan's expense. Japan is host to about 47,000 U.S. military personnel as part of the decades-old security alliance.
Hatoyama had said he wants the base moved off the island, where many complain about crime, noise, pollution and accidents associated with U.S. bases, but U.S. officials have ruled that out, saying it would undermine broader security arrangements.
SUPPORT FOR HATOYAMA COULD WAVER
Some experts in Japan criticised Washington's tough approach.
In the past, if the United States came out strong, Japan would fall into line. But that is no longer the case, said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Tokyo's Keio University.
Others said the spat could affect not only bilateral ties but also domestic support for Hatoyama, which remains high at over 70 percent.
(Japan's) Democratic government is unable to fully read America's strategic intentions and this is appearing as a perception gap, said Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
As this grows, the United States will not be able to view Japan as a reliable partner.
The prime minister's position is (also) not clear-cut ... This will be one of the major factors that would undermine public support for the cabinet, Yamamoto added.
The friction is prompting concern among some in Japan that the United States will move closer to China.
If the disagreement on security continues for a long time, then the alliance will loosen. The Obama administration will start considering China as a reliable partner rather than its ally Japan, the Nikkei business daily said in an editorial.
In a two-day visit to Tokyo that ended on Wednesday, Gates pressed hard for the base deal to go ahead without major changes.
Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map, he said on Wednesday.
Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa.
(Additional Reporting by Linda Sieg and Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Ron Popeski)