By Phil Stewart and Isabel Reynolds
October 21, 2009
TOKYO – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday pressed Japan to quickly implement a deal to reorganize the U.S. military presence in the country, an issue that could test ties with Tokyo’s month-old government.
“It is time to move on,” Gates said at a news conference with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa after they held talks on alliance issues. “This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone.”
A broad plan to reorganize U.S. forces in Japan was agreed in 2006 with Japan’s long-dominant conservative party after a 1996 deal failed to gain support of local residents, many of whom associate the bases with crime, noise, pollution and accidents.
Kitazawa said he had pointed out the political difficulties involved in the deal, but added he felt spending a lot of time reaching a decision would not be healthy for the alliance.
Japan’s Democratic Party-led government has pledged to steer a diplomatic course less dependent on close security ally Washington.
That has prompted concern that security relations between the world’s two biggest economies could suffer at a time when China’s economic clout and military power is growing and North Korea remains as unpredictable as ever.
“Needless to say, the new administration will place great importance on and cherish our alliance,” Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told Gates at the start of their meeting earlier in the day.
“Under the circumstances in which uncertainties remain in this Northeast Asia region, I think it is imperative to maintain and develop our alliance even further.”
OBAMA VISIT, NUCLEAR UMBRELLA
Gates’ visit is intended to lay the groundwork for U.S. President Barack Obama’s November 12-13 trip to Tokyo, his first as president to the key trade partner.
The U.S. defense secretary stressed the benefits of the alliance for Japan, whose pacifist constitution restricts its military’s role and which relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
“It seems to me that the primary purpose of our alliance from a military standpoint is to provide for the security of Japan,” he said. “This defense umbrella has protected Japan for nearly 50 years. It has allowed Japan to have a defense budget of roughly 1 percent of GDP.”
Japan is host to about 47,000 U.S. military personnel, whose forward deployment analysts say is critical to the American military presence in the region.
The troop realignment pact is meant to reduce the U.S. military “footprint” on the southern island of Okinawa while improving the ability of the two forces to cooperate.
Central to the deal is a plan to shift a U.S. Marine air base on Okinawa to a less crowded part of the southern island.
Hatoyama has said he wants the base moved off the island, but U.S. officials have ruled that out, saying it would undermine broader security arrangements that took years to negotiate.
Gates told reporters on his plane before arriving in Tokyo on Tuesday that he saw no alternatives to the original plan, but Japan has suggested it needs more time to work out its stance.
“Our new government has its own thoughts. We would like to spend time and reach a good result,” Kyodo news agency quoted Hatoyama as telling reporters ahead of his meeting with Gates.
Some analysts said the Pentagon’s tough stance reflected the difficulty of adjusting to Japan’s new political reality after half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which put the alliance at the core of its diplomacy.
Hatoyama’s Democrats trounced the LDP in an August 30 election.
The United States was the biggest destination for Japan’s exports last year. The two countries accounted for about a third of global GDP in 2007, although analysts predict China could overtake Japan as the world’s No.2 economy next year.
Few analysts expect the bilateral strains to spill over into economic ties between the two countries, but some say geopolitical uncertainty in the region could eventually affect investment decisions.
Gates will visit South Korea later on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Writing by Linda Sieg, Editing by Dean Yates)