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Japan OKs Aid To Afghanistan Ahead Of Obama Visit

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama
TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan said it would give Afghanistan up to $5 billion in new aid, a package Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama hopes will improve strained security ties with Washington ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit this week.

Tokyo and Washington have feuded over plans to relocate a U.S. military base on Japan's southern island of Okinawa as part of a broad reorganization of U.S. troops, raising concerns about the security alliance between the world's two biggest economies.

It is the first big test of ties between Washington and a new Japanese government that wants a more equal relationship with its closest security ally.

Hatoyama is expected to present the aid package to Obama, who is reviewing U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, at a summit on November 13 in Tokyo, Japanese officials said. The aid would be delivered over five years.

Both sides have said the row over the relocation of the Futenma air base would not be the main focus of the talks, but Hatoyama is under pressure to make a decision soon. The dispute threatens to stall a realignment of the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan.

Obama and Hatoyama agreed by phone on November 10 to strengthen ties and discuss issues such as Afghanistan and climate change at their summit, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said.

In an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK, Obama said he understood the need for Tokyo to reexamine the reorganization of U.S. bases given a new government had taken office.

But he added: "I am confident that once the review is completed, they will conclude that the alliance that we have, the basing arrangements that have been discussed, all of these things serve the interest of Japan and they will continue."

Bases A 'Burden'

Under a 2006 agreement, the Futenma Marine base is to be closed and replaced with a facility built partly on reclaimed land at Henoko, a remoter part of the island, by 2014.

The deal is part of a wider plan to reorganize U.S. troops and reduce the burden on Okinawa by moving up to 8,000 Marines to Guam, partly at Japan's expense.

"We must reach a conclusion that lessens the burden on the Okinawan people, when considering the suffering they have gone through to this day," Hatoyama told reporters on November 9.

That view was supported by 70 percent of Okinawa residents in a poll published this month by the "Mainichi" newspaper.

But that may not be fully shared by the overall public.

A survey by the mass circulation "Yomiuri" newspaper showed on November 10 that 63 percent wanted Japan to implement the plan to relocate the Futenma base as planned or with minor changes.

Residents of Okinawa, 1,600 kilometers south of Tokyo, have long resented what they see as an unfair share of maintaining the U.S.-Japan security alliance, partly due to crime, noise pollution, and accidents.

In the latest incident, U.S. forces detained a soldier who was driving a car that may have been involved in a suspected hit-and-run case in which a Japanese resident in a village on the island was killed over the weekend, NHK reported on November 10.

Hatoyama has said he would not rush a decision on Futenma, adding Obama would be keen to discuss Japan's assistance to Afghanistan.

The aid package, which comes ahead of a planned halt to Japan's naval refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, will focus on civilian steps including job training for former Taliban fighters.

The package, a hefty increase from the $2 billion Tokyo has spent on the country in recent years, will also include steps to improve agriculture, infrastructure, and education in Afghanistan.