Japan must concentrate on its ties with Washington before those with Asia, the foreign minister said Wednesday, adding that the U.S. military presence in the country was crucial for the entire region.
"Japan should first continue to build strong relations with America, and based on this, deepen relations with other Asian nations," newly appointed Foreign Minister Taro Aso said.
His remarks came after a breakthrough agreement between the two countries on realigning U.S. bases in Japan, with Washington agreeing to pull about 7,000 U.S. troops out of the country and Tokyo promising to more closely integrate its own Self-Defense Forces with the U.S. military command.
Japan on Wednesday also started procedures to partially lift its two-year ban on U.S. beef imports _ imposed due to fears of mad cow disease _ defusing a potential trade battle between the two allies.
Aso denied that Japan was diplomatically isolated in Asia, playing down a a recent flap between Tokyo and its Asian neighbors, especially Beijing and Seoul, over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a war shrine that has convicted war criminals among those it honors.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Japan's relations with China have actually been improving," Aso said. "Japanese animation, popular music and fashion are all very popular (in China). In terms of public sentiment, I don't think relations are all that bad."
He also said Japan would seriously consider extending its mission to Iraq in support of U.S.-led operations there.
"It would be unwise to abandon the cause midway and cause more chaos," Aso said. "It's important that Japan accurately assess when security can be brought back to Iraq under its own government."
Japan has about 600 troops on a non-combat mission in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. The mission expires later this month, but Tokyo has not decided whether to extend it.
The U.S. has said it hopes Japan will stay on, AP reported. V.A.
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