Japan says no deadline to resolve US base row

TOKYO, Feb 17, 2011 (AFP) - Japan said Thursday it has no plans to set a deadline to resolve a dispute over a US base on Okinawa island, a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped for a solution by spring.

Tokyo and Washington have squabbled since 2009 over the fate of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island, where locals have long complained of aircraft noise and the risk of accidents.

The dispute helped bring down a previous premier who mused openly about moving the base off the island then backtracked to appease Washington, which says the base has crucial strategic value.

Current Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to relocate the base, as originally agreed with Washington in a 2006 pact, from a crowded urban area to a quieter rural part of Okinawa, despite strong local opposition.

However, facing cabinet poll ratings around 17 percent, discord within his party and the threat of parliamentary gridlock, Kan is fighting for survival and may need the help of an anti-base leftist party to pass key bills.

Gates in Washington on Wednesday expressed hope for progress by "later this spring" on the base issue.

But Kan's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, said: "I don't think setting a deadline would support efforts toward the resolution when we are trying to win the understanding of the people in Okinawa."

As part of the 2006 deal to shift the base, some 8,000 US Marines and their families would leave the island for the US Pacific territory of Guam.

Gates warned that "without resolution" of the issue, "troops don't leave Okinawa, lands don't get returned to the Japanese, to the Okinawans".

Kan is planning to visit the United States by late June to meet President Barack Obama, during which both sides hope to release a joint statement on the importance of their half-century security alliance.

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