Japan: No base decision soon

By John Pomfret and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 9:46 AM

The Japanese government said Thursday it would take its time in deciding whether to renege on a military realignment plan involving U.S. bases, despite warnings from the Obama administration that any reversal would spark serious consequences.

Officials in Tokyo appeared unfazed by pressure from the U.S. government, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano telling reporters that Japan was unlikely to make its decision before Obama's visit to the country on Nov. 12 and 13. The process could stretch into early 2010, he said.

"We can't accept what America is asking for in such a short period of time and say we'll do it just because it is an agreement between Japan and the United States," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said during a morning talk show on commercial broadcaster TBS, the Associated Press reported.

Japan's effort to redefine its alliance with the United States and its place in Asia reflects the new orientation of the government under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won an overwhelming victory in August and took power after years leading the opposition.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used a visit to Japan this week to pressure the governmentto keep its commitment to the military agreement, which was formulated in part to deal with a rising China.

"It is time to move on," Gates said after meetings with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. If Japan pulls apart the troop "realignment road map," Gates said, it would be "immensely complicated and counterproductive."

Hatoyama said Gates's presence in Japan "doesn't mean we have to decide everything."

For a U.S. administration burdened with challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China, troubles with its closest ally in Asia constitute a new complication.

A senior State Department official said the United States had "grown comfortable" thinking about Japan as a constant in U.S. relations in Asia. It no longer is, he said, adding that "the hardest thing right now is not China, it's Japan."

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the new ruling party lacks experience in government and came to power wanting politicians to be in charge, not the bureaucrats who traditionally ran the country from behind the scenes. Added to that is a deep malaise in a society that has been politically and economically adrift for two decades.

In the past week, officials from the DPJ have announced that Japan would withdraw from an eight-year-old mission in the Indian Ocean to refuel warships supporting U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. They also have pledged to reopen negotiations over a $26 billion military package that involves relocating a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter base in Japan and moving 8,000 U.S. Marines from Japan to Guam. After more than a decade of talks, the United States and Japan agreed on the deal in 2006.

On Thursday, Hirano told reporters that Hatoyama wants to weigh the outcome of mayoral elections in Nago, where the proposed new base would be built, before making his decision on whether to go forward. The mayoral election is to be held in January.

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