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November 28, 2005With the US putting more focus on the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, ties with longtime ally Japan are in the midst of a major overhaul. US and Japanese military force structure and mission changes—announced earlier this month in the “two plus two” agreement, coupled with subsequent discussions in Washington and Tokyo—are the most sweeping reforms of the strategic partnership since the post-occupation period began in 1952.

For starters, the move of approximately 7,000 marines of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam (home of Andersen Air Force Base) is a key element of the agreement announced in Washington on Oct. 29. According to the agreement, US and Japanese officials expect a redistribution of Marine Corps assets among Guam, Hawaii, and Okinawa to “provide greater flexibility to respond with appropriate capabilities” to a wide range of contingencies.

During a February 2005 meeting of the Security Consultative Committee, US and Japanese officials reached an understanding on common strategic objectives and agreed to continue examining the roles, missions, and capabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Force and the US armed forces in pursuing those objectives. The subsequent agreement cites defense of Japan and responses to situations in “areas surrounding Japan, including responses to new threats and diverse contingencies” as primary areas of emphasis. There is also mention of use of Japanese forces to aid international security efforts in peacekeeping operations. 

“Like all alliances, this relationship must and is, in fact, evolving to remain strong and relevant,” US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said at the joint press conference announcing the new agreement. “It’s our joint responsibility to manage the alliance’s evolution, and we are getting that job done.”

Among changes arising from the agreement are expanded training opportunities in the US for Japanese forces; additional bilateral and multilateral exercises; and enhancing US-Japan contingency planning and information sharing. Japan, in March 2006, plans to create its own joint commands to tie together more closely its ground, air, and sea defense forces. The plan would also co-locate US and Japanese military headquarters, such as moving Japan’s Air Defense Command headquarters to Yokota Air Base, home to USAF’s 5th Air Force.

Japan’s government also recently proposed the first change to the nation’s national constitution since the end of US post-war occupation. It takes the dramatic step of authorizing, even encouraging, the deployment of the Japanese forces to assist the international community in peacekeeping operations. The key clause that is being revised is Article IX, the “no-war” clause that has permitted scant military activity beyond the Japanese home islands.

A new regional dynamic—growing economic and military strength of China, in particular—has significantly changed the US relationship with Japan and Japan’s strategic role in the Pacific. (Read Air Force Magazine’s “Dragon, Eagle, and Rising Sun.”)