Japan envoy says won't postpone U.S. base decision
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japan, on the eve of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said on Thursday it would not postpone a decision on the future of a U.S. air base that has strained ties between the two allies.
But Japan's ambassador to Washington, Ichiro Fujisaki, cautioned in an interview with Reuters that it was still not clear whether both sides would be able to find a new way to resolve the dispute over the air base on Okinawa island.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama "has made it very clear that he will do his utmost to come to a resolution of this issue by the end of May. That is only 10 days away," the ambassador said in Washington.
When running for office last year, Hatoyama raised hopes that the Futenma Marine air base might be moved off Okinawa entirely despite a 2006 deal with Washington to move it from a crowded city to a less populous site on the island.
With his self-imposed deadline of settling the matter by the end of May approaching, Hatoyama has changed tack, saying he has come to realize some Marines must stay on the island to deter threats.
Fujisaki dismissed as speculation a report in Japan's Sankei Shimbun daily last week that Hatoyama had decided to put off a decision on the thorny base issue until November.
"He has never said I'm going to postpone it for six months," he said.
"We are trying to ... study the feasibility of some of the ideas which we have discussed and that we are discussing still now," said Fujusaki.
"But I cannot say that we have come up or we will be coming up with some new ideas," he cautioned.
Support for Hatoyama's government is languishing around 20 percent while disapproval has risen to two-thirds, according to recent public opinion polls. More than half of voters think he should resign if he does not settle the dispute this month.
CLINTON TO MEET HATOYAMA
Clinton is scheduled to meet Hatoyama and Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Tokyo on Friday, her first stop on a one-week trip to East Asia centered on strategic and economic talks with China and a visit to South Korea on Wednesday.
Clinton is expected to underscore U.S. support for ally Seoul over the sinking of a South Korean warship. Experts from the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden concluded that a North Korean submarine had fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan corvette in March, killing 46 sailors.
Fujisaki reiterated Japan's backing for South Korea: "We fully support and stand by the ROK on this issue, so we will work together with the ROK and the United States and our support is unequivocal."
South Korea is expected to call for more international sanctions on North Korea over the torpedo attack.
"We have been taking quite tough measures," Fujisaki said when saked if Japan could tighten already stringent curbs on trade and contacts with North Korea. But he did not rule out further steps, pending any announced plans by South Korea.
Previewing themes for the upcoming Group of 20 economic summit in Toronto, Fujisaki said financial regulation will remain the top issue on the agenda but said the European debt crisis will also be an important topic.
"I think that people will be interested to hear from European countries how they are coping with this issue," he said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Caren Boran and David Alexander; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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