WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Monday it respected Japan’s request to consider alternatives to the relocation of a U.S. air base on Okinawa island but stopped short of pledging to explore new options to soothe strained ties between the allies.
The comments by a Pentagon spokesman came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Japan’s foreign minister at the Pentagon, talks that touched on the future of Futenma Air Station, which is home to about 2,000 Marines.
“We respect Japan’s request to explore alternatives,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “But with respect to any discussions or details, we’ll conduct those discussions through diplomatic channels.”
The dispute, which is eroding Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s ratings before a mid-year election, centers on a 2006 accord that included shifting the Marines’ base to a less crowded spot on Okinawa.
During the campaign that swept his party to power last year, Hatoyama raised hopes Futenma could be moved entirely off the island, which plays reluctant host to most of the roughly 49,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan.
But there was still no sign of a feasible alternative before Hatoyama’s self-imposed May deadline to resolve the matter. Washington wants to go ahead with the accord, as-is.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the matter later on Monday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Ottawa, but U.S. officials gave no indication Washington was ready to change its mind.
“Basically there was no change here from previous conversations,” a U.S. official said after the meeting, adding that the Japanese did not provide details of their new ideas for Futenma during the conversation with Clinton.
Japanese opposition to keeping the base in Okinawa has centered on safety concerns and air pollution tied to training flights over residential areas but has also been stirred by anti-American feelings.
Mass protests erupted in 1995 when three U.S. servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.
The Pentagon offered few details of the Gates-Okada meeting. It stressed Gates underscored his view that “the Marines in Okinawa are critical to the alliance,” according to a Defense Department statement.
The United States expected Tokyo “to help ensure (the Marines’) presence remains operationally and politically sustainable,” the statement added, without elaborating.
Okada and Gates also agreed on the importance of quickly completing the review on Futenma, it said.
The Futenma relocation is part of a broader realignment that also involves shifting 8,000 Marines to Guam from Okinawa by 2014, a deadline that looks increasingly difficult because of foot-dragging on Futenma.
Japanese media have reported Tokyo’s alternative could involve the creation of an artificial island off Okinawa or the use of a different island for the base.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told lawmakers in Washington last week he was optimistic Hatoyama would stick to the current 2006 agreement on Futenma.
A recent poll published in the Sankei newspaper showed nearly half of those who responded said Hatoyama should quit if he fails to resolve the air base issue.
More than 73 percent of voters polled by the Sankei said they were unhappy with his management of the problem, while nearly 85 percent of respondents said they were unimpressed with Hatoyama’s leadership skills overall.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Andrew Quinn in Ottawa; editing by Paul Simao and Todd Eastham