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US Minimizes Impact of Okinawa Dispute on Alliance With Japan

The State Department's chief Asia diplomat says the U.S.-Japanese relationship is in much better shape than it was in the 1990s despite a dispute over the status of American forces on Okinawa. The comments came as the two countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of their defense alliance.

The Japanese government's decision to review a 2006 agreement on Okinawa has injected an element of discord in the relationship.

But Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell says the importance of the issue should not be overblown, and that the alliance is on much stronger footing than in trouble-prone 1990's.

Campbell met State Department reporters as the two governments marked the 50th anniversary of an alliance that President Obama, in a written statement, said is unshakable and a critical part of U.S. engagement with the world.

The left-leaning Japanese government is reviewing the 2006 accord under which a key U.S. Marine base on Okinawa is to be relocated, and some 8,000 U.S. troops moved to Guam, to lessen the impact of the American presence on Okinawans.

Some members of the ruling Japanese coalition campaigned for deeper cuts in the U.S. presence. In comments here, Campbell - who played a key role in negotiating the 2006 deal - reaffirmed the Obama administration's stand that it should be implemented as written.

But he said an appearance of intransigence serves no ones interest.

"Obviously there's a balance here. The United States is trying to be very clear and firm about why we think this position that's been worked out over decades, really, is the right approach," he noted. "But at the same time we do not wish to appear intransigent and indeed we've tried to be very clear that our door is open for dialogue and discussion on a whole host of matters, and we're also trying to maintain, within this general context, flexibility."

Campbell said despite heavy media attention on the issue, tensions in bilateral relations are nothing compared to those of the mid-1990s when passions were inflamed by a rape case involving a U.S. service member and a young Okinawan woman.

The Asia diplomat also said despite calls from some Japanese politicians for an outright end to the U.S. military presence in Japan, that view is rejected by mainstream opinion on both sides.

"The ability for American forward-basing - Navy, Air Force, and Marines - ground forces - provides not only essential credibility, but also capabilities to be able to respond urgently and directly to challenges, not only to Japan's security, but regional security challenges in the immediate region," he added. "So I think there's very little question or debate among strategic analysts or foreign policy specialists that a boots-on-the-ground, ships-in-the-harbor, jets-in the sky, component to our alliance with Japan is essential."

Campbell expressed regret that the new Japanese government, which took office in September, ended an arrangement under which Japanese tankers in the Indian Ocean refueled U.S. ships supporting allied forces in Afghanistan.

But he said Japan, with a recent $5 billion commitment, has become the largest single contributor to Afghan reconstruction efforts.

Campbell said he would travel to Japan in early February to continue a dialogue on Okinawa and other issues begun by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada last week in Hawaii.