TOKYO - A U.S. diplomat said on Thursday that Washington was fully committed to its alliance with Japan, as the two governments prepared for a visit by President Barack Obama that has been clouded by a feud over a U.S. Marine base.
The dispute over where to put a replacement facility for Futenma air base on Japan's southern island of Okinawa, a key part of a realignment of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, is one of several flashpoints in the alliance, seen as the core of security arrangements in the region.
The row coincides with deepening questions about how China's rising military and economic clout will reshape the decades-old U.S.-Japan alliance.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month bluntly urged Japan to implement a 2006 deal on where to put the new facility and called on Tokyo to resolve the issue before Obama arrives on November 12, on the first leg of an Asian tour.
But State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington on Wednesday that the United States had not set any kind of deadline, and a day later Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell sounded a positive note on the alliance.
We are extraordinarily pleased with the preparations, excited about this next phase in our relationship, and we are making plans to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of our alliance, and also to look at new areas where we can work closely together, Campbell said after meeting Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Tokyo.
We are fully committed to this alliance. We think that we're working very well together, Campbell told reporters.
He declined to reply to a question about Futenma.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party took office in September pledging to forge more equal ties with Washington, had said in the run-up to his party's August election victory he wanted to move the base off Okinawa to ease the burden on residents there.
But Washington officials have stressed they want to push ahead with an agreement to move it from a crowded town to a remoter part of Okinawa by 2014 as a prerequisite to moving 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam.
Japan's foreign ministry brushed off concerns that relations with the United States had chilled and said the government was speeding up efforts to reexamine the troop realignment plan.
We will accelerate current activities so that we'll reach a reasonable conclusion at an early time, but I can't say when or by what time, Deputy Press Secretary Yasuhisa Kawamura told reporters.
Hatoyama will tell Obama he needs more time to review the relocation plans but also reassure the president that ties with the United States remain the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy, the mass circulation Yomiuri newspaper reported.
Analysts said Hatoyama was probably playing for time before making a tough decision that risked upsetting either Washington or Okinawa residents, many of whom resent bearing what they see as an unfair burden for the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Residents on the island, many who complain about crime, noise, pollution and accidents associated with the U.S. military presence, are expected to gather for a mass rally on Sunday to protest against the bases.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Linda Sieg; Editing by Bill Tarrant)