Prime Minister Naoto Kan stressed Thursday the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the importance of the continued presence of American forces in Okinawa for the national security.

Kan apologized to Okinawa locals for “causing confusion and deeply hurting their feelings” over the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma during a speech hosted by the Friendship Exchange Council, a nonprofit international exchange organization.

The prime minister, however, noted that the U.S. military presence was necessary amid the “extremely grave” situation in Asia at present due in large part to North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“As long as the presence of U.S. bases in Okinawa is necessary for the security of all of Japan, it is necessary to make ceaseless efforts to share the pain and burden of the prefecture with all the people in the country,” Kan said. “I promise to strengthen efforts through various opportunities to seek the understanding and cooperation of those living outside Okinawa regarding the burden of hosting U.S. bases.”

Japan-U.S. ties have often been been strained since the Democratic Party of Japan took power in August 2009 because of the Futenma relocation.

But Kan stressed that the change in government does not affect relations with the U.S. He is set to hold a summit with President Barack Obama in Washington in the first half of 2011, at which time the two leaders are expected to outline a joint vision for the alliance.

“I believe the Japan-U.S. alliance is the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy and shall be maintained and strengthened regardless of the change in power,” Kan said, adding the alliance has also contributed to the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.

On China, Kan expressed concern over the country’s lack of transparency in its rapidly expanding defense budget and military activities around the East China Sea.

Japan’s relations with China sank to their lowest point in recent years after a Chinese trawler was involved in a run-in with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan’s administrative control but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Kan noted Japan and China have had ties for over 2,000 years and expressed optimism Thursday that the two relationship will move forward.

“There have been unfortunate times between (Japan and China) in the past, but throughout their long history, there has been active exchange and cooperation in a wide range of fields, including politics, the economy and culture,” Kan said. “As responsible major countries in the international community, the two nations must play a big role in resolving various issues facing Asia and the world.”

He also promised to continue negotiations with Moscow over the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants returned and to pursue the return of the Japanese abducted by North Korea.

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