U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged Japan to step up its participation in international security efforts, saying that would help pave the way for ``a more equal relationship'' between America and its Asian allies.
In a speech today at Tokyo's Sophia University, Gates paired that plea with a vow that the U.S. will stay engaged in Asia even as it fights difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates said the challenges facing Asia and the world required ``multiple nations of shared interests to come together'' and that Japan must be part of such efforts.
`` Japan has the opportunity, and an obligation, to take on a role that reflects its political, economic, and military capacity,'' Gates said. ``That is why we hope, and expect, Japan will choose to accept more global security responsibilities in the years ahead.''
Gates said this hope that Japan will play a larger global role underlies U.S. support for the Japanese bid to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
He named international peacekeeping operations, economic reconstruction efforts and humanitarian relief as examples of activities where the U.S. hoped Japan would increase its contributions.
Gates spoke at a moment when Japan's government is struggling to win parliamentary reauthorization of a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S. and NATO military efforts in Afghanistan.
Japan was forced to suspend the mission on Nov. 1 when its legal authority expired. Opposition parties have blocked an extension of the operation, in which Japan refueled U.S. and allied warships interdicting vessels seeking to transport terrorists and weapons to Afghanistan.
Gates said the refueling operation has made ``a huge difference'' in the Afghan military effort and that as many as a dozen nations besides the U.S. have benefited directly from it.
Speaking with reporters on his way back to Washington, Gates said that while he was eager to see the refueling mission resume, there is no connection between that issue and continued U.S. support for Japan's Security Council membership bid.
He also said he had asked Japanese officials to maintain their current level of financial support for the U.S. military presence in Japan, saying it was important to show Japan ``attached real importance to the continuation of the alliance.''
In Tokyo, Gates said no one should doubt the U.S. commitment to the region.
``Far from neglecting Asia, we are more engaged than ever before,'' he said. ``We have forged, reshaped or renewed security partnerships throughout the Pacific Rim.''
Over the next few years, the U.S. plans to move about 8,000 Marines to Guam from the Japanese island of Okinawa and reduce its forces in South Korea to about 25,000 from the current 28,000.
At the same time, Gates said, the U.S. is cooperating with Japan on a ballistic missile defense system and working with four other Pacific nations to rein in North Korea's nuclear program.
The missile defense effort with Japan involves sea-launched Aegis interceptors based on Japanese warships and a radar installation located at a Japanese air base.
Responding to a question, Gates said the repositioning of U.S. forces reflects ``the maturing of our alliance relationships'' with Japan and South Korea ``and does not in any way represent a lessening of our commitment to either.''
During the Cold War, Gates said, the U.S. ``had better relations with a number of different Asian nations than they had with each other.''
That has changed, opening up opportunities for multilateral relationships -- and for Asian nations to assume greater responsibility for their own security rather than ``just depending on the United States to be the guarantor,'' he said.
``This evolution from these bilateral relationships in which the United States played the principal security role to a more equal relationship between the United States and our allies, and then among our allies themselves, represents the next step forward in Asia,'' he said. ( Bloomberg )