Japan minister sounding out US on base row

WASHINGTON: Japan's foreign minister was on Monday to sound out top US officials on reaching a compromise in a row over a military base, which has cast a shadow over the two nations' alliance.

Japan's six-month-old center-left government is caught between US pressure to keep the Futenma air base on Okinawa and demands from some supporters to remove the facility entirely from the crowded island.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada will hold talks on Monday in Washington with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama's national security adviser, retired general James Jones.

Okada will meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later in the day in Ottawa on the sidelines of a conference of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight major industrial nations.

Kazuo Kodama, the Japanese foreign ministry's press secretary, said that the talks were part of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's efforts to hear out all sides as he drafts a "concrete alternative" by the end of May.

"We have to gain the understanding and also the approval of the US government, for obvious reasons," Kodama said Sunday.

"But we have to also convince the people of Okinawa that whatever decision being made will be good for Japan and also the Okinawan people," he said.

The United States has used Japan as a major military base since the end of World War II and now has 47,000 troops stationed there, more than half on Okinawa, the site of some of the war's bloodiest battles.

Futenma, a Marine base, dates from 1945 but since the crowded city of Ginowan has since built around it, leading to friction with residents who are worried about noise and safety.

Under a plan sealed in 2006, Futenma's facilities would be shifted to reclaimed land on a quiet stretch of the subtropical island and some 8,000 Marines would leave for the US territory of Guam.

Okada is expected to float alternatives including shifting Futenma's operations to various US bases around Okinawa, with some functions also shifting to Kyushu -- one of mainland Japan's four islands.

But the United States would still build a new base in the longer term off the Navy's White Beach facility in another part of Okinawa, according to Japanese media reports.

Mizuho Fukushima, head of the staunchly pacifist Social Democratic Party which is part of Hatoyama's coalition, has already rejected the idea and called for the base's removal from Okinawa.

"We're against the plan and it wouldn't reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa," she said.

The United States has publicly warned Japan that the Futenma plan was the "lynchpin" of the 2006 deal and said that changes would jeopardize the shifting of troops to Guam.

Admiral Robert Willard, head of the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command which covers Asia, said on a visit to Washington last week that Futenma was needed to ensure defense of the region.

Willard said the United States had already spoken exhaustively on the issue with Japan, which US troops defend under a security treaty.

"Having discussed this with the Japanese for about the last 17 years, we believe that the current plan for the Futenma replacement facility is the best plan," he said.

But US officials have also said that they are willing to listen to Hatoyama on the issue, voicing hope that the row will not overshadow the alliance between the two nations.

Hatoyama's coalition swept elections in August, ending more than half a century of nearly unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.