DEAUVILLE, France (Reuters) - The United States will help Japan as it rebuilds after a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, President Barack Obama said Thursday, soothing a rift between the two allies over the atomic disaster.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Obama in a meeting on the sidelines of a Group of Eight summit in France that Japan has delayed a decision on whether to join a U.S.-led free trade pact due to quake impacts, a Japanese official said.
“The United States will stand by Japan for as long as it takes for Japan to recover,” Obama told Kan in their first meeting since the March disaster that struck northeast Japan, leaving about 24,000 dead or missing.
The two countries initially appeared divided over their assessments of the dangers posed by a nuclear plant that was damaged by the quake and tsunami, but the relief work by 20,000 U.S. troops in the devastated areas helped heal ties.
Damages from the quake and tsunami have been estimated at $300 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster.
Kan thanked the United States for its support.
“With quake reconstruction, I want to make the Japanese economy stronger again,” Kan told Obama, adding that Japan is tackling its key agendas again, including fiscal reform.
“I want to ask for your continued support.”
Japan had set a June deadline for deciding whether to participate in the proposed TranspAcific Partnership trade pact, the first entirely new trade agreement the Obama administration has negotiated since taking office, but has postponed the decision.
Obama and Kan said they will stick to an agreed plan to relocate a U.S. airbase on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa, a thorny and prolonged issue that prompted Kan’s predecessor to resign last year, officials of both countries said.
The plan to shift the airbase to a less populated part of the island, is resisted by residents, many of whom associate U.S. bases with crime, accidents and noise.
Media reports have said that the two countries will drop a 2014 target to complete relocation and discuss a new time frame.
The two leaders also agreed to cooperate on regional issues such as the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials of both countries said.
Kan is due to make an official visit to the United States in September, officials said.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Catherine Bremer