In shift in tone for U.S., Clinton plays down fight over Marine base in Japan

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

HONOLULU -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the Obama administration would not allow a squabble over the fate of a Marine air base in Okinawa to shake the foundations of the United States' alliance with Japan.

Her comments, after a meeting here with her Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada, underscored a shift in tone for the administration, which had been pressing the new Japanese government to drop its opposition to a proposed realignment of bases and move the Futenma Marine base to another part of the island.

Instead, Clinton said she was "respectful" of Japan's recent decision to wait until May to decide the facility's fate.

"This is an issue that we view as very important," Clinton said at a news briefing. "But we are also working on so many other aspects of the global challenges that we face, and we are going to continue to do that."

Many Okinawa residents object to the presence of U.S. forces on the island, and Japan's new government ran on a platform that included opposition to the realignment plan.

Both sides are seeking to play down the fight over Futenma and emphasize the positive aspects of their relationship. In an interview Monday night, Okada issued the clearest declaration of the importance of the alliance by a senior Democratic Party of Japan official since the DPJ swept to power in August, ending more than five decades of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Saying he hoped that the alliance would last "30 years or 50 years or longer," Okada sought to fend off speculation in Washington that the new government in Tokyo wants to move away from Japan's traditionally close relationship with the United States.

That tone persisted Tuesday as Clinton and Okada met for 80 minutes in what Clinton called "a long and comprehensive meeting" that touched on Afghanistan, where Japan is committing $5 billion to redevelopment; Iran's nuclear ambitions; North Korea's nuclear weapons program; global warming; and Burma, where the United States has recently adopted a policy of engagement with the military junta.

"This partnership is not just indestructible, it is truly indispensable," Clinton said.

The mutual move to accentuate the positive came after months of friction over the air base. Experts have criticized both sides for allowing the fate of a military installation with at most 40 helicopters to hijack their relationship. Leaders across Asia have privately expressed alarm and urged the United States and Japan to resolve the problem. And traders in the foreign exchange markets have expressed concern that the disagreement could affect coordination among the U.S. Treasury, the Federal Reserve and Japan's central bank.

The new tone also stems from a growing realization in Washington and Tokyo that the base issue cannot be allowed to dominate an alliance crucial to both countries at a time when a resurgent China is remaking Asia, signing trade deals and staking claims to ocean resources.

In an example of China's rising heft, state-run Chinese news media reported Tuesday that China has tested a new antimissile system. Although some analysts speculated that the test was intended to show China's displeasure over a recent U.S. decision to sell a batch of PAC-3 anti-missile batteries to Taiwan, Clinton said she did not think that was true.

A third reason for the friendlier tone with Japan was highlighted by a speech Clinton gave Tuesday at the East-West Center in which she signaled another shift. She said the United States was committed to working closely with many of the regional structures in Asia, such as the Association for Southeast Asian Nations -- something the Bush administration played down.

Japan's government, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, informed the Obama administration last month that it would take until May to decide on an alternative site for the Futenma base. The U.S. military views a Marine presence on Okinawa as key to its regional strategy, not only in defending Japan but also in reinforcing allied forces in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Hatoyama's decision prompted fears in Washington -- and throughout the Asia Pacific -- that he is using the Futenma issue as an excuse to cool relations with Washington.

But on Tuesday, Clinton appeared understanding.

"We are respectful of the process that the Japanese government is going through," she said. "We also have an appreciation for some of the difficult new issues that this government must address," including the widespread opposition to the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

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