Sunday, November 1, 2009

Japan denies friction with US over bases

TOKYO — Japan's centre-left government Monday denied US ties were being strained by a row over an American military base, 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 to arrange 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 centre-left government took power in Japan in mid-September vowing less subservient ties with the US after decades of conservative rule in Japan.

It 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 southern Okinawa island from a crowded urban to a coastal area 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.

Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said the issue is unlikely to be resolved before Obama's November 12-13 visit, while his ministers have mentioned sometimes contradictory ideas about how to resolve the issue.