Japan's new government appeared to bow to intensifying pressure from visiting top U.S. military officials, saying Friday it supports keeping a major U.S. Marine airfield on the southern island of Okinawa.
The move narrows — but doesn't close — a rift between the two alliance partners ahead of President Barack Obama's visit in three weeks. The new Tokyo administration, elected in a landslide in August, is eager to assert a more independent stance with Washington — but doesn't want to unduly strain ties with its chief ally and key trading partner.
The government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has suggested it would like to make changes to a 2006 agreement that would realign the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, including moving 8,000 Marines to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
A major sticking point has been the future of Futenma airfield, which under the pact would be relocated to a less crowded part of Okinawa. However, Hatoyama has suggested he would like the airfield moved off the island entirely.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Tokyo earlier this week, insisted the Futenma — a busy Marine Corps air base — must be relocated on the island, calling any other options "politically untenable and operationally unworkable."
Admiral Mike Mullen added to that pressure Friday during meetings with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and other officials, urging them to quickly resolve the issue.
After his meeting with Mullen, Okada said moving Futenma airfield off the tiny island "is not an option" — although it would be difficult to resolve the location of the new site before Obama's Nov. 12-13 visit.
"Starting from scratch on other ideas would not serve the best interests of the people of Okinawa," he said.
While the plan would lighten Okinawa's share of hosting American troops, local opposition has stalled progress on choosing a new site. Many residents say they're worried about base-related crime, cost and environmental issues. The Camp Schwab area, in a less populated part of Okinawa, remains the most likely candidate. Kadena Air Base, which is also on the island, is another possibility.
'We're barely on track'
Washington has grown concerned that Tokyo was balking at key elements of the agreement, which took more than a decade of negotiations with Japan's previous conservative administrations. Mullen said he understood Hatoyama's desire to review the pact, but was concerned further delays could derail the overall timeline.
"We're barely on track with what was laid out in 2006," Mullen told reporters, adding that "from a purely military perspective, it is very important that we move ahead with previous agreements."
Hatoyama has repeatedly said he did not intend to rush to a decision, although he said Friday that the matter should be resolved "sooner than later."
Okada, however, acknowledged the issue needs to be addressed urgently.
"We should not spend too much time on this," he said after meeting Mullen. "Our time is limited."
The Hatoyama government has also signaled that it plans to end its naval mission in the Indian Ocean — tankers that have been used as refueling pit stops for Afghanistan-bound allies. Instead, Tokyo is considering reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
During his visit, Gates told Okada that the refueling mission provides important support for the U.S. coalition forces, though whether to continue the mission is Japan's decision. He urged Japan to continue providing support for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Futenma is used by helicopters, transport planes and other aircraft as the primary air support base for the more than 10,000 U.S. Marines based on Okinawa. U.S. officials have argued that it must stay somewhere on Okinawa to be close to the Marines on the ground.
Okada was keen to avoid perceptions that the two nations are increasingly at odds.
"I don't think we have any disputes or serious problems between us," he said after meeting with Mullen. "There is no need to overreact. I believe that the United States understands that we cannot simply accept everything just because an agreement is already made."
More on: Japan