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.
The Bush administration has generally taken a proactive stance in supporting Japan's defense policy. It has given the nod to permanent deployment of a US Aegis destroyer in the Sea of Japan in response to the missile threat from North Korea, Ishii says, and has committed to defending the disputed Senkaku Islands. Previous administrations had refused to take sides in the Japan-China row over the islands.
There is also a perception in Japan that many of the cold war issues which have been largely resolved in Europe still remain in Asia, and require more traditional security strategies.
"In Europe, there are regional security arrangements such as NATO and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] ... but in Asia, the US today still plays the same role of promoting regional peace and stability that it did during the cold war," says Shigekatsu Kondo, an executive director at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), the policy research arm of the Japan Defense Agency. He says there is a misconception by China that the US is unwelcome in the region, despite the increased cooperation between Washington and such countries as Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Asia "doesn't have a strong regional security system ... and for this reason [Asian countries other than China] welcome closer relations between Japan and the US," says Mr. Kondo.
A report released last month by NIDS warned that China's views on regional security were becoming counterproductive. Beijing hasn't had top-level meetings with Tokyo for almost a year.
Tokyo is constrained by its Constitution from becoming involved in conflicts overseas, but the NIDS report argues that a military "specializing only in the defense of the homeland can hardly defend Japan's overall security" in a global context.
Details in the realignment met tough opposition from communities being asked to host US forces. In Okinawa only solved a controversy over the relocation of Futenma airbase elsewhere on the island by deciding to build two runways at the new base that direct traffic over the ocean.
"Many residents ... want the US military gone," says Kosuke Yoshitsugu, an assistant professor at Okinawa International University. About 70 percent of the US forces stationed in Japan are located in Okinawa, and about 20 percent of land in the prefecture goes to US military use.
Tokyo and Washington agreed in March that Japan would bear 59 percent of the cost, or $6.09 billion, to relocate 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2012, but details are unclear on cost-sharing for other moves around the country. The entire package will probably cost around $30 billion.