October 2, 2009 / 7:50 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. to give Japan time to assess troop rejig deal: envoy

TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States wants to give Japan’s new government time to review a contentious agreement on rejigging U.S. troops in the country, but thinks an existing deal is the best solution, U.S. ambassador John Roos said on Friday.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party took office last month vowing to forge a more independent stance from its close security ally.

That has raised concerns among investors and diplomats about friction over issues ranging from the planned realignment of U.S. troops to a naval refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan.

“The solution is the realignment roadmap that has been agreed to,” Roos, a newcomer to the post, told a group of reporters.

“I think you have to give the Hatoyama administration time to analyze, to review, to ask questions, and hopefully, the administration will come to the conclusion ... that it’s a deal that is in both parties’ best interests.”

The issue is expected to be on the agenda when U.S. President Barack Obama visits Japan in November, but Roos said Washington was not setting a deadline for resolving the problem.

The realignment deal includes a plan to ease the burden of U.S. bases on the southern island of Okinawa by moving a Marine air base to a less crowded spot on the island, and to shift 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam, partly at Japan’s expense.

Hatoyama has said the air base should be moved out of Okinawa, but has not proposed an alternative location.

Japanese cabinet ministers met on Friday to start assessing the troop realignment deal, which was agreed on in 2006. An original agreement to move the air base dates back to 1996, but was never implemented because of local residents’ opposition.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada gave little away.

“We are talking about the need to reassess the past (agreement), nothing beyond that. We’re not saying yet that there needs to be a revision,” he told reporters after the meeting.

“The reassessment is an urgent matter, but we haven’t decided on a date for when the work should end.”

The Democrats have also said there will be no “simple” extension of an Indian Ocean refueling mission backing U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, the legal mandate for which expires in January. Okada has repeatedly declined to elaborate.

Roos said Washington was open to discussing alternatives, which the Mainichi newspaper reported could include job training to help Taliban fighters re-enter civil society.

“Japan is going to have to make a decision ... going forward. But they are considering a whole host of alternative ways of contributing,” Roos said. “As our close friends and partners, we’re going to work with them on that and look forward to seeing what their proposals are.”

Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka, Editing by Dean Yates

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