- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright is the top U.S. military officer in Japan, Wash- ington’s most important Asian

ally. He also is a seasoned combat pilot, just back from an afternoon in his F-16 fighter flying maneuvers over the East Sea/Japan Sea, taking in a tense region from 11,000 feet up.

Not far over the horizon is North Korea with its nuclear ambitions, and rising China, with its vast army and designs on U.S. ally Republic of China (Taiwan). Below him is Japan, where 50,000 U.S. troops maintain the balance of power. Farther off, Islamic troubles simmer in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“You just have to take a look around the region to see why it is so important,” Gen. Wright said. “The size of militaries, and in fact the growing military capabilities in this region, certainly gets my attention.”

The Washington-Tokyo alliance is critical and evolving.

With U.S. military resources drained by Iraq and the global war on terrorism, the two countries are in talks that could lead to the most sweeping realignment of U.S. troops in Japan and the biggest shift in Japan’s own leadership role in recent memory.

Officials said they have reached agreements in two important areas to ease friction between Americans and residents of Okinawa, where most of the 14,500 Marines in Japan are stationed. They agreed to move a Marine airfield to a less crowded part of the island and shrink the number of Marines by thousands.

But the aim of the talks runs much deeper than logistics.

Washington wants a stronger Japan playing a more vigorous role in regional security issues and, perhaps, serving to counterbalance China’s rising strength.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi backs that shift. He has sent hundreds of troops to Iraq in a humanitarian role and supports efforts to revise Japan’s post-World War II constitution, which severely restricts the use of its military.

“There is tremendous promise for Japan to be an international security leader,” Gen. Wright said. “We have proven to the world that Japan and the U.S. can be mutually supportive partners. … I have a lot of confidence in Japan.”

Japan already has 250,000 troops and modern ships and fighter planes. Japanese and U.S. troops have significantly boosted their ability to work together, from refueling each other’s ships and planes to improving command communications.

But many Japanese think their country should learn the lessons of its World War II aggression and stick to diplomacy, aid and political leadership abroad.

Mr. Koizumi’s insistence on visiting a shrine in Tokyo closely associated with pre-1945 militarism has raised concerns across Asia as well. His latest visit on Oct. 17 provoked strong protests from South Korea and China.

The talks in Tokyo have an added sense of urgency because the United States is scaling down its forces in South Korea from 37,000 to 24,500.

Okinawa may be headed for similar reductions, after negotiations so protracted that many Japanese read a gesture of impatience in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s decision to skip Tokyo when he toured Asia last month.

Gen. Wright acknowledged the talks have been complicated but thinks they have shown “a lot of progress.”

However, Okinawa’s governor has told the central government in Tokyo that a plan to build a U.S. heliport on the southern island as part of a realignment of the American military presence there is unacceptable.

The heliport plan was part of a deal to close unpopular Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa and move its functions to another base on the island.

The plan “completely disagrees with the prefecture’s ideas. It is absolutely not acceptable to Okinawa,” Gov. Keiichi Inamine said after meeting with Defense Facilities Administration Agency chief Iwao Kitahara.

Japan and the United States have reached a broad agreement on strengthening military cooperation, reducing the number of U.S. Marines in Okinawa and giving Tokyo greater responsibility for security in the Pacific.

Under the accord, 7,000 U.S. Marines are to leave Okinawa for the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a move that is expected to take six years. Japan will work with the U.S. government to examine how it can help facilitate the move to Guam.

The United States has 14,460 Marines in Japan, the largest Marine contingent based overseas. Nearly all are located on Okinawa, where residents have expressed a strong desire for a rapid reduction in U.S. forces.

The Bush administration feels it has good reason to want a strong Japan.

North Korea has one of the world’s biggest standing armies and missiles that can reach virtually any of the dozens of American military facilities in Japan and perhaps even the U.S. West Coast.

Islamic insurgencies are long-standing in the Philippines and southern Thailand. Al Qaeda has been linked to terrorism in Indonesia. Piracy is a constant threat to shipping in the Straits of Malacca, which connect the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Then there is China, its tensions with Taiwan and its increasingly heated territorial disputes with Japan. China’s rising economic and military power is generating concern, although U.S. officials are careful not to call Beijing a threat.

“It’s my job to plan for the worst case,” Gen. Wright said. “I think the best thing to say about China is that we look forward to increased transparency regarding Chinese military growth.”

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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