US hopes for progress on Okinawa base issue
A US official voiced hope Tuesday for progress in the new year in a long-running dispute over a military base in Japan after voters swept conservative Shinzo Abe back into power.
The United States clashed with a previous government over plans to move the controversial Futenma air base on the southern island of Okinawa. Under a 2006 deal reached when Abe's Liberal Democratic Party was in power, the facilities would shift from a crowded city to the quiet area of Henoko.
"Certainly 2013 is the year when we should break the bottleneck associated with moving the Futenma airfield to Henoko," Kurt Tong, the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Tokyo, said in Washington.
"This is the right time to make progress on this. And I think we can do that moving forward," Tong said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Abe, who previously served as prime minister in 2006-2007, has long advocated close security ties with the United States and a greater defense role for Japan, which has been officially pacifist since defeat in World War II.
The Liberal Democrats, who had ruled post-war Japan nearly without interruption, lost power in 2009 to the party of left-leaning Yukio Hatoyama. He resigned as premier after failing to fulfill a campaign promise to renegotiate Futenma, which some activists want removed entirely from Okinawa.
President Barack Obama's administration, however, later developed warm ties with other prime ministers from Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan.
The United States agreed in April to go ahead with the removal of 9,000 troops from Okinawa despite the persistent Futenma dispute, ahead of a visit to the White House by outgoing prime minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Tong described US-Japan relations as being in "extraordinarily good shape," saying that no major party in Sunday's election was critical of the two nations' alliance.