Japan PM in US to turn page for alliance

WASHINGTON - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Sunday started a visit to the United States aimed at turning the page on an uneasy few years in the alliance, days after a deal on a thorny troop dispute.

Noda, who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for his three-day trip, is the first Japanese premier to visit Washington for a solely bilateral visit since his center-left Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009 elections.

At a White House meeting Monday, Noda is expected to talk to President Barack Obama about boosting defense ties and tensions over North Korea. But the visit will also be heavy on symbolism as the two sides hope to show that the relationship is back on track.

"I would like to exchange views candidly on the vision of a future US-Japan alliance. I want the meeting to be fruitful so that the public can see clear results," Noda told reporters on departure from Tokyo.

The United States and Japan announced on Friday an agreement to move 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, addressing a persistent source of friction. The subtropical island is host to half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan.

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said the deal "breaks a very long stalemate on Okinawa that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems."

But the agreement will preserve a key element of a 2006 plan between the two countries - building an air base on a quiet seashore. The two sides had hoped the 2006 arrangement would end concerns by moving the base out of a crowded urban area, but some activists pressed for its complete removal.

Weston Konishi, director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said the deal was "a good face-saver for both sides" but went little beyond previous statements.

The latest accord showed that the United was flexible and "willing to make a good-faith effort," while for Noda, it showed that he was "serious about trying to do his best to reduce the footprint" of US troops in Okinawa, he said.

"It's a win-win for both governments, but whether this leads to a final resolution of the problem, I think, is still debatable," Konishi said.

Obama had made an early effort to reach out to Japan, inviting then-prime minister Taro Aso as his first White House guest in hopes of dispelling concern that the new administration would ignore Asian allies as it focused on managing the complicated relationship with a rising China.

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