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HONOLULU — The headlines associated with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent visit to Japan notwithstanding, relations between Washington and Tokyo are not as strained as they may appear . . . at least not yet. But there is no question that improper handling of a number of sensitive issues before, or worse yet during U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled Nov. 12-13 visit to Tokyo could help weaken an alliance that the two sides have spent almost 50 years building.

The Okinawa base issue has grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines over what has been portrayed as an “ultimatum” from Gates that “it is time to move on,” combined with his warning that pulling apart the current (previously agreed upon) plan would be “immensely complicated and counterproductive.” But Gates also pointed out that “we are very sympathetic to the desire of the new government in Japan to review the realignment road map,” further noting that “we have not talked in terms of a time limit, but rather the need to progress as quickly as possible.” He further noted that “modest change” on the Futenma Air Base relocation issue was a matter between Tokyo and the Okinawan government and people (who have thrice signaled acceptance of the plan).

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