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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Japan's new leaders Tuesday the Obama administration is committed to implementing a wide-ranging defense agreement reached by the previous American and Japanese governments, which some in Japan's new ruling party would like to change. Secretary Gates says there are "no alternatives" to the complex agreement.
Like the Obama Administration, Japan's new government ran hard against its predecessor's policies and put many of them under review when it took office. Secretary Gates says he understands that, but he told Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada the United States is committed to moving forward with the existing security realignment.
"We in President Obama's administration understand what it is like to go through a transition period. And, as your government exercises its new responsibilities, I want you to know the United States stands with you and we are committed to advancing and implementing our agreed alliance transformation agenda," he said.
Earlier, on board his aircraft flying to Tokyo, Secretary Gates was more direct.
"We need to progress with the agreement that was negotiated. This has been a negotiation in the works for 15 years,"he stated. "All of the elements of it are interlocking. And, so it is important to continue with it. There really, as far as we're concerned, are no alternatives to the arrangement that was negotiated."
Secretary Gates says all possible alternatives were explored during the long negotiations and all are either "politically untenable or operationally unworkable." And although U.S. officials say small adjustments may be possible in the specific plan for an air base in northern Okinawa, Secretary Gates said he doubts the U.S. Congress would agree to significant changes in the agreement, particularly if they would cost the United States more money.
Among many changes to the configuration of U.S. forces in Japan, the agreement involves moving nearly half the 18,000 Marines now stationed on Okinawa to Guam; closing an air field in a populated area and building a new one on an existing U.S. base in the northern part of the island. American officials say the agreement benefits both sides, and any significant change could unravel the whole deal.
The newly ruling Democratic Party of Japan ran in part on a platform that advocated a more assertive policy toward the United States. One of its first acts was to announce it would end Japan's naval operation that refuels coalition supply ships heading to and from Afghanistan - a move seen by some in Japan as an expression of independence from U.S. policies.
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But Secretary Gates - on the first visit to Tokyo by a senior U.S. official since the new Japanese government took office - says he will remind the new Japanese leaders that Afghanistan is a NATO and coalition effort and that Japan's refueling mission did more to help other countries than it did to help the United States directly.
"A number of countries benefit more from the refueling than the United States does. And, so I don't see the refueling as being a favor to the United States but rather a contribution that the Japanese have made that is commensurate with its standing as in the world as the second wealthiest country and one of the great powers," he said.
Still, Secretary Gates says he went to Japan with a "menu" of options for how the country can be helpful by, among other things, providing trainers for the Afghan security forces and donating money for development projects.
U.S. officials say, in addition to the refueling operation, Japan has contributed $2 billion worth of aid to Afghanistan during the last eight years. This fiscal year alone, the United States will spend $68 billion in Afghanistan.
The secretary says he will also discuss options for increased involvement in Afghanistan during a visit to South Korea, starting Wednesday. He said missile defense will also be on the agenda in both Tokyo and Seoul, in the wake of increased missile test launches by North Korea.