Talks on the relocation of a major American military base have been suspended, deepening a deadlock between the United States and Japan.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Tuesday a high-level working group convened to discuss the move has been suspended and no date for a restart had been set, the Kyodo News agency reported.
Many on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa want the U.S. base closed and its functions moved off the island altogether. They say it poses a threat to the safety of the people who live near it, and have complained of base-related crime and environmental issues.
The relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is at the center of a dispute between Tokyo and Washington. Japan and the United States agreed in 2006 to relocate the base to a site farther north. But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has put the deal on hold and indicated the relocation site could be changed.
Hatoyama, who took office in September, has expressed support for moving the base off the island, although Japan's previous government agreed with the United States that a new facility would be built on Okinawa.
"We are now waiting to see whether we should hold the discussions again," Okada said without elaborating, according to Kyodo. A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley downplayed Okada's statement, telling reporters in Washington on Tuesday that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell has been working closely with Japanese officials Monday and Tuesday on the base matter.
"We will continue our close consultation with Japan as it works through these issues," Crowley said. The United States, he said, believes that the current realignment plan is the best way to reduce Okinawa's burden while maintaining the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The working group involving Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and U.S. Ambassador John Roos was set up in early November. It has met twice. Kyodo said talks on the future of the base made little progress.
Okada suggested last weekend a decision on whether to abide by the 2006 pact may not be made by the end of the year, as Washington had hoped.
To lighten Okinawa's load, Tokyo and Washington have agreed to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014, but the U.S. military says that plan cannot move forward until Futenma's replacement facility is finalized.
Nearly 50,000 U.S. troops are deployed across Japan under a post-World War II bilateral security pact.
Associated Press Writer Foster Klug contributed to this report from Washington.