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The new head of Japan's biggest political party and possibly its next prime minister has set aside his tough position on trade squabbles and strongly defended ties with the United States.

Ryutaro Hashimoto made clear Monday in an interview with The Associated Press and Associated Press Television that he is not sympathetic to a small but influential group of rightists who view America as a decaying society and are calling on Japan to throw its lot in with Asia.Hashimoto, the trade minister who made headlines with his stand against U.S. demands in auto talks earlier this year, was inaugurated Monday as president of the Liberal Democrats, the leading force in the ruling coalition.

While the United States and Japan may quarrel at times over trade, Hashimoto said, "the fact that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important one for us isn't going to change in the future."

He put particular stress on the military treaty under which the United States stations 45,000 troops in Japan, calling it the foundation of Japan's security and a "major ingredient for security in Asian countries."

"America is a continental power and an Atlantic power, yes, but at the same time it is a Pacific power," he said. "We don't want it to forget that."

Some Japanese rightists such as Shintaro Ishihara, author of the America-bashing book "The Japan That Can Say No," have argued that Japan should reduce its reliance on the United States and take on a leading role in East Asia.

But Hashimoto, who in the past has left some ambivalence about his views, said such a policy would never work.

"When the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is being firmly upheld, when Japan and the United States both recognize its value - then and only then is it possible for (Japan's ties with Asia) to expand," he said.

Hashimoto was conciliatory toward the United States on trade issues as well, acknowledging that Japan's high savings rate - the most fundamental cause of its huge trade surplus - was not "normal."

"We're trying our hardest to convey that we want to make a significant reduction in our (trade) surplus," he said, citing an upcoming supplementary budget that will contain billions in new spending to perk up Japan's economy.

Hashimoto earned a reputation as a hard-edged negotiator but showed a more genial, relaxed side Monday.