GINOWAN, Okinawa — While debate rages concerning realigning U.S. forces in Japan, another issue is threatening to affect the U.S.-Japan alliance: How much should Japan pay to maintain U.S. bases in the country?

U.S. and Japan officials wrapped up two days of talks Friday in Tokyo on the so-called “host nation support” with one conclusion — more sessions are necessary. The bilateral agreement that covers the spending expires in March 2011.

During the talks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro told his Japanese counterparts that Japan should maintain its current level of support, which covers things like utilities, salaries for Japanese base employees and some construction, according to Kyodo News.

Japan has been reducing its funding to support bases over the last decade, dropping from a high of $3.17 billion in 1999 to $2.15 billion last year.

Shapiro told Kyodo News that Japan’s support of the bases should remain at current levels in order to ensure regional security, especially at a time North Korea is suspected of sinking a South Korean warship in March and China is flexing its naval muscles in international waters near Okinawa.

“The role that the U.S. military plays in Japan and the region cannot be understated,” he said, adding that the two sides “got off to a very good start.”

However, because of Japan’s failing fiscal health, the government is reportedly seeking ways to reduce the payments. Japan’s Ministry of Defense had no comment Monday concerning the talks. A spokeswoman said they were still ongoing. However, the ministry usually submits its budget for the upcoming fiscal year by the end of August.

One of the major budget cuts could be the money for salaries for Japanese who work at venues operated by base Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs and base exchanges. There is also talk of reducing the pay scale for such workers, who are often paid much more than employees in similar positions in the surrounding communities.

“We understand that the government is seeking to exclude workers at leisure facilities, such as AAFES, from being employees paid by the Japanese government,” Hiroshi Zamami, secretary general of the Okinawa chapter of The All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, known as Zenchuro, said Monday.

He said that the union is collecting petition signatures to ask U.S. Forces Japan to stress the need to retain all 23,055 employees who work on U.S. bases. If the job cuts go into effect, it would afect the 6,341 employees at U.S. bases covered by the Indirect Hiring Agency (IHA), according to Japan’s Labor Management Organization.

U.S. officials have said they are against such job cuts, fearing the U.S. military would have to pick up the tab to pay the employees, or cut services.

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