Japan to Step Up Its Asia Security Role ; Accord on Realignment of US Forces in Japan, Expected Monday, Aims to Boost Security Cooperation

Article excerpt

An agreement to realign US forces in Japan, to be finalized Monday in Washington, marks another step forward for Tokyo's ambitions to play an integral part in maintaining stability in a potentially volatile Asia-Pacific region.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Defense Agency director Fukushiro Nukaga will meet their US counterparts, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, to discuss a pact that is a key part of the Bush administration's global transformation of the American military.

Analysts say the realignment marks a coming-of-age for the US- Japan alliance as a security framework of worldwide importance.

The overall package can be read as "a fresh stance not only for the defense of Japan and surrounding areas," says Yoshihiko Mizumoto, a security analyst at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, "but also as advocating joint reform of the international security environment, because it marks a systematic adjustment in the global development of the bilateral alliance."

The agreement is expected to lead to closer cooperation between the two militaries, as well as a more equal security partnership. The accord provides for the relocation of both a US division headquarters from the state of Washington and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces Command to Camp Zama in Kanagawa, making intelligence sharing more comprehensive. It also establishes joint US-Japan use of the air base at Yokota, near Tokyo.

"These actions will help increase the interoperability of US and Japanese ground and air forces," says Masami Ishii, a security expert at Waseda University in Tokyo. Boosting interoper- ability is essential to the alliance, as is making Japan's defense industrial environment more efficient, he says.

The driving forces behind ever-closer military relations come from both sides of the Pacific. One factor is the friendship between George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who share views on security issues.

On the US side, there is a desire to create a hedging strategy in Asia, given the view that China poses a potential long-term threat. That includes ending the regional perception of Japan as weak in military matters, says Mr. Ishii.

He adds that for Japan, there are domestic factors such as the abduction of nationals to North Korea, and the weakening perception that China could be a possible ally in any security triangle among Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing. "Such an idea was quite popular in the 1990s, but this strategic thinking has now ceased," Ishii says.

Others argue that beefing up security in response to North Korea's assertion that it possesses nuclear weapons is, to a certain extent, being used by Tokyo as a cover to counter increasing military expenditure by others in northeast Asia. "The target of the strengthening US-Japan military cooperation isn't North Korea, but China," says Toshiki Odanaka, a law professor at Senshu University. …