President Barack Obama vowed continued U.S. help for key ally Japan to rebuild after its devastating earthquake and tsunami but also pushed for progress on a long-delayed plan to relocate American forces in the country.
Obama held his first meeting Wednesday with Yoshihiko Noda, Japan's newest prime minister. Noda has held office for less than a month and faces domestic challenges beyond the natural disasters, including a stagnant economy and a crushing national debt. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Noda is Japan's sixth prime minister in five years. He also said rebuilding is his top priority. More than 20,000 people died or were left missing after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan that sent a nuclear power plant into meltdown. It was the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and led another 100,000 people to leave their homes because of a radiation threat.
Both sides hailed the U.S.-Japanese alliance, which Noda described as the pillar of Japan's foreign policy. The two leaders said the countries must focus on economic growth.
But they also broached what has been a sticking point in relations _ how to proceed with plans agreed by the two governments in 2006 to relocate a U.S. Marine air station on the southern island of Okinawa.
Japan's government has failed to win the assent needed from residents there, although the plans aim to reduce the U.S. military footprint on the island that hosts more than half of the 47,000 American troops in Japan.
"Both sides understand we are approaching a period where you need to see results," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, told a news conference after the 45-minute meeting. "That was made very clear by the president."
"Japan will do its best to solve the issue," said Japanese spokesman Yutaka Yokoi, noting this included getting the understanding of Okinawans.
There was no sign any headway has been made in the re-basing plans, which would involve building a new airfield in Okinawa and shifting 8,000 Marines would to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. The two sides in June pushed back the 2014 deadline for its completion.
Some influential U.S. lawmakers have criticized the plans as unworkable and too costly. Japan, which faces a massive post-quake reconstruction bill, is to foot much of the multibillion dollar cost of the base relocation.