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By Phil Stewart
TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States wants to stick to a deal on realigning U.S. troops in Japan, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday, giving Japan's new government little room to move on an issue that could test ties.
Investors have expressed concern that Japan's pivotal security alliance with the United States could suffer under the new government at a time when China's military power is growing and North Korea remains as unpredictable as ever.
A broad plan to reorganise U.S. forces in Japan was agreed in 2006 with Japan's long-dominant conservative party after a 1996 deal failed to gain local support. The realignment pact intends to reduce the U.S. military "footprint" on the southern island of Okinawa and elsewhere while improving the ability of the two forces to cooperate.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's Democratic Party, however, ousted its conservative rivals in an August election, pledging to take a diplomatic stance less dependent on the United States.
"There are really, as far as we're concerned, no alternatives to the arrangement that was negotiated," Gates told reporters on his plane before arriving in Tokyo for meetings with Japanese officials.
"We've looked over the years at all of these alternatives and they are either politically untenable or operationally unworkable."
Central to the deal is a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine air base on Okinawa to a less crowded part of the southern island.
Hatoyama has said he wants the base moved off the island. U.S. officials have ruled that out, saying it would undermine broader security arrangements that took 15 years to work out.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Tokyo wanted to deal with the matter flexibly while heeding the views of Okinawa residents, many of whom feel they have borne an unfair share of the burden for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, as well as the stance of two tiny ruling coalition partners.
"We want to deal with this while reducing the burden on the people of Okinawa, taking into account the three-party coalition agreement and placing importance on the U.S.-Japan relationship," Hirano told a news conference.
Japan, whose own forces are restricted by its pacifist constitution, hosts about 47,000 U.S. military personnel as part of a decades-old security alliance. But many residents near U.S. bases complain of crime, noise, pollution and accidents.
The United States and Japan agreed three years ago to move functions of the Futenma air base to a less crowded part of Okinawa as part of a deal that also includes shifting 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam.
Washington is keen to move ahead with the project, which is supposed to be completed by 2014, partly because the issue has dragged on since an initial agreement on the bases in 1996.
TROOP DEAL TIMING, AFGHAN MISSION
Gates signalled Washington could be flexible on the placement of the runway for the relocated air base, but said concerns about the environment expressed in Japan had been taken into account.
"We have indicated that there could be some flexibility in terms of the location but that's really a matter between the Okinawa government and the government of Japan," he said.
Some analysts said it might be unwise for the United States to press Hatoyama's new government so hard now given the difficulties the prime minister faces balancing the conflicting demands of his coalition, Okinawa residents and Washington.
"This issue is particularly sensitive for the coalition government, so Gates coming out so strong could possibly destabilise the government in a way not desirable for the American government," said Sophia University's Koichi Nakano.
"The outcome is probably going to be a very limited change of the current plan anyway, so it doesn't look like a very good idea to push the Democrats very hard on this."
Gates will meet members of the new Japanese government on Tuesday and Wednesday for talks ahead of a trip to Japan next month by President Barack Obama.
The United States wants Japan to come forward with new forms of assistance to Afghanistan, if Tokyo follows through with plans to halt a naval refuelling mission backing coalition forces.
Gates, who will also visit Seoul this week, said he would discuss ways that Japan and South Korea could contribute to the stalled war in Afghanistan, which is facing a resurgent Taliban and rising casualties after eight years of fighting.
"I'm not coming with a view to making any specific requests of either of these governments," he said.
"If they're more comfortable with assistance in areas such as the sustainment of the Afghan national army and police in financial terms or helping with economic development and so on, we're perfectly prepared to discuss those."
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Dean Yates)

Reuters