Gates Signals U.S. Is Flexible on Moving Air Base in Japan
By MARTIN FACKLER and ELISABETH BUMILLER
TOKYO — Striking a conciliatory tone on an issue that has divided Japan and the United States, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the Obama administration would follow Tokyo’s lead in working to relocate an American air base on Okinawa.
During talks with Japanese leaders in Tokyo, Mr. Gates said he also discussed a sophisticated new antimissile system that the United States is jointly developing with the Japanese, and the two nations’ response to North Korea’s recent military provocations against the South.
But a top item on the agenda was the relocation of the United States Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, an emotional issue here that drove an uncharacteristic wedge between the allies last year when the prime minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, wavered on whether to keep the base on Okinawa.
While the two nations finally agreed in May to relocate the noisy helicopter base to a less populated part of Okinawa by 2014, local resistance has made that time frame look increasingly unrealistic.
On Thursday, Mr. Gates said the administration did not want the Futenma issue to overshadow the countries’ overall security alliance, which last year reached its 50th anniversary. He signaled that the United States was willing to be flexible in allowing Tokyo to resolve the domestic political resistance to the relocation plan.
“We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan,” he said after meeting Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa. “And we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account.”
The softer tone is a departure from Mr. Gates’s visit to Tokyo in October 2009, when he pushed Mr. Hatoyama’s fledgling government to honor an earlier deal to relocate the base on Okinawa. Those pressure tactics backfired, creating resentment in the government that the United States was trying to bully it.
Mr. Hatoyama eventually stepped down amid criticism that he had mishandled the alliance. His successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has worked to strengthen security ties with Tokyo’s traditional protector.
At Keio University in Tokyo on Friday, Mr. Gates said the rising tensions in the region, including North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and China’s expanding military, made it essential to fortify the security alliance between the United States and Japan. “Our alliance is more necessary, more relevant and more important than ever,” he said.
He said it was essential for American military forces to remain in Japan, particularly as a deterrent against North Korean aggression and the ever-bolder Chinese armed forces. Without the American presence, he said, “North Korea’s military provocations could be even more dangerous or worse.” China, he said, “might behave more assertively towards its neighbors.”
On Thursday, Mr. Gates and Mr. Kitazawa discussed one of the nations’ largest joint projects, the development of the antimissile system, which will be fired from ships to intercept larger ballistic missiles in midflight.
Washington wants to be able to sell the system, known as the SM-3, to other nations, including possibly South Korea. But that would require Japan to rewrite its tight restrictions on weapons exports, a pillar of the nation’s post-World War II pacifism.
While Mr. Gates said Washington hoped to defray development costs by exporting the system, he was aware that this was a delicate matter in Japan. “It makes economic sense to make it available to others,” he said of the new interceptor. “But we understand there are certain processes that have to be gone through here.”
Prime Minister Kan has called for a public debate on revising the restrictions, a step that many Japanese see as necessary for closer security cooperation with the United States in responding to China and North Korea.
Mr. Gates, whose next stop is South Korea, said he had asked Japan for help in pressuring the North not to strike South Korea again. He has said he is worried that South Korea might feel forced to make a strong retaliation after already suffering North Korean attacks last year on an island and a warship. Pyongyang has denied involvement in the sinking of the warship.
“It’s a longstanding principle that every country has the right to protect itself and defend itself against an unprovoked attack,” Mr. Gates said. “The objective that we all have in common is, how do we prevent another provocation from taking place?”
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