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CORRECTED – Japan’s Hatoyama to meet U.S. envoy, ties in focus

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CORRECTED – Japan’s Hatoyama to meet U.S. envoy, ties in focus

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TOKYO  – Japan’s next leader, Yukio Hatoyama, was to meet the U.S. ambassador on Thursday as worries simmered about the allies’ ties after an election win by Hatoyama’s party, which has pledged a more independent diplomatic course.

Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) crushed the long-ruling Liberal Democrats in Sunday’s election, sought to reassure U.S. President Barack Obama that the relationship would stay central to Tokyo’s diplomacy.

“I told him we think the U.S.-Japan alliance is the foundation (of Japanese diplomacy) and I would like to build U.S.-Japan relations with eyes on the future,” Hatoyama told reporters after an early morning phone conversation with Obama.

The prospect of a Democratic Party administration in Japan, ruled for most of the past half-century by a conservative party that put the U.S. partnership at the core of its security stance, has raised worries in Washington about a tilt away from the alliance.

Most analysts say no huge shift is in store once Hatoyama takes up the premiership on Sept. 16, but investors are also concerned about a possible rocky road ahead.

The Democrats pledged in their campaign platform to create a more equal partnership with Washington while forging warmer ties with Asian neighbours such as China.

The U.S.-educated Hatoyama also raised eyebrows in Washington with a recent essay, published in English, in which he attacked the “unrestrained market fundamentalism” of U.S.-led globalisation. He has since sought to play down those comments.

“It was an error of judgment on the part of Hatoyama and the DPJ to have the essay published in English,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

“It was for domestic consumption and had its purpose in the campaign context, but putting it out in English for an American audience was unwise.”

U.S. officials, however, have raised eyebrows themselves in Tokyo by forcefully reiterating Washington’s position that deals on U.S. forces in Japan were not up for renegotiation.

“Obama needs to send a message to the whole administration to bite their tongues or they will provoke a fight,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis. “The internal politics of the DPJ and its coalition don’t allow them to just walk away from his platform a few days after the election. But give them a few months and there will be ways to deal with these issues.”

The Democrats, themselves a mix of former LDP members, ex-socialists and younger conservatives, are trying to form a coalition with two tiny parties, including the leftist Social Democrats, whose support is needed in parliament’s upper house.

The new ruling party has said it wants to reexamine an agreement governing U.S. military forces in Japan and a deal on rejigging U.S. troops under which about 8,000 Marines would leave for the U.S. territory of Guam and a Marine air base be shifted to a less populated part of the southern island of Okinawa.

“Just to make it abundantly clear, both the United States and Japan, at the government-to-government level, have made it absolutely clear that these agreements have been signed, agreed to, and are going forward,” new U.S. ambassador John Roos said in an interview with U.S. National Public Radio on Wednesday.

Roos was scheduled to meet Hatoyama later on Thursday. Hatoyama has also said he plans to end a naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan when a legal mandate expires in January.

Few analysts expected a Democratic Party government to make big changes in the alliance, given decades of close ties and Japan’s reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to protect it from such regional threats as unpredictable neighbour North Korea.

But Washington would do well to avoid a strident tone in talks with Japan’s government-in-waiting, some analysts said.

“Japan is so heavily reliant on the United States that radical change is not going to happen,” Sophia University’s Nakano said.

“But American senior officials taking such a haughty stance after the Japanese people have spoken in favour of a change of government is not diplomatically very sound.

“They have to be careful. They don’t want a backlash.”

Such concerns may have been reflected in comments in Washington by the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, Kurt Campbell, who said Washington saw no contradiction between a call for more independence from Washington and a healthy alliance.

“For the alliance to maintain its relevance and its influence … a degree of independence, of confidence, is absolutely essential on the part of Japan,” Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a think tank in Washington. “The United States supports that.”

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