Leaping into a deepening dispute with a longtime Asian ally, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is meeting with her Japanese counterpart to discuss the future of a U.S. Marine air field and, more broadly, the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Clinton on Tuesday was also delivering a speech designed to clarify the Obama administration's views on modernizing the groupings of Asian and Pacific nations in ways that would enhance their cooperation on a wide range of issues, including regional security, trade and the environment.
For decades the main U.S. ties to the Asia-Pacific region have been through security and trade agreements with individual countries, such as the 50-year-old security treaty with Japan that allows the basing of U.S. forces on Japanese territory.
The case of Futenma air station, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, has become particularly sensitive. That it must be moved is not in dispute — the two countries signed a deal in 2006 to relocate it on the island. The problem is where to put it. And the U.S. position is that it cannot be shut down until a replacement is established elsewhere on Okinawa — an idea most Okinawans oppose.
A new left-leaning Japanese government that took office in September is reassessing the U.S.-Japan alliance.
It also is investigating agreements long hidden in government files that allowed nuclear-armed U.S. warships to enter Japanese ports, violating a hallowed anti-nuclear principle of postwar Japan. The findings are due out this month, and U.S. officials said prior to Clinton's arrival in Honolulu that they expect Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to raise the matter in their talks Tuesday.
In remarks to reporters traveling with her from Washington on Monday, Clinton played down the friction over Futenma, stressing the many other areas of long-standing cooperation between the two countries.
"We've had a very positive set of interactions with the new Japanese leadership," she said. "We're grateful that they are playing such a leading role in Afghanistan. Their commitment, a very large trust fund, $5 billion, dwarfs anything that any other country has done."
The Hawaiian setting for Tuesday's meeting, in the 50th year of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, inevitably stirred memories of darker times. Before her session with Okada, Clinton was scheduled to visit the World War II memorial to the sunken USS Arizona, which still lies in Pearl Harbor with its dead.
Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed and almost 1,180 injured when Japanese fighters bombed and sank 12 naval vessels and heavily damaged nine others on Dec. 7, 1941. The Arizona, which sank in less than nine minutes after an armor-piercing bomb breached its deck and exploded in the ship's ammunition magazine, lost 1,177 sailors and Marines. About 340 of its crew members survived.
In her remarks en route to Honolulu on Monday, Clinton defended the Obama administration's foreign policy record in its first year. She said that while the administration may not have produced major breakthroughs, it set the stage for important progress in the months ahead.
Clinton cited Iran as one of the toughest foreign policy problems for the U.S. in 2010. She also said the administration has concluded that the best way to pressure Iran to come clean on its nuclear ambitions is to impose sanctions aimed at the country's ruling elite.
"It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran," she said. "They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions. But all that is yet to be decided upon."
Officials from the six nations trying to persuade Iran to prove its nuclear intentions are peaceful said Monday that senior diplomats from the group were preparing to meet, possibly later this week, to discuss the way ahead, including potential new sanctions.
Clinton mentioned that the meeting, of representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — plus Germany, would be held at the end of the week in New York. She did not cite a specific day.
"They will be exploring the kind and degree of sanctions that we should be pursuing," she said.