The US and Japan are engaged in the most far-reaching deliberations about their alliance since they revised their mutual security treaty in 1960 -- discussions that envision a greatly enhanced role for Japan in the common defense.
A revitalized US-Japan alliance is certain to draw objections from China, with which both the US and Japan have prickly relations, and from North Korea, which may have acquired nuclear arms and once threatened Japan and US forces in Asia with a "nuclear sea of fire."
The prospect of a stronger US-Japan alliance has alarmed South Korea, from which the US plans to withdraw one-third of its 37,000 troops there. Koreans complain that the US is reducing its commitment to South Korea in favor of expanded relations with Japan, which most Koreans still dislike even though Japan's harsh occupation of Korea ended 60 years ago.
These US-Japan negotiations didn't start with a fundamental revision of security relations in mind. Rather, they have evolved as the consequence of two separate but converging movements, one in the US, the other in Japan.
Under President George W. Bush, the US has begun a worldwide realignment of military forces to make them more flexible and effective in responding to contingencies. In Japan and Korea, that means eliminating outdated headquarters and consolidating operational controls into a new command arrangement in Japan.
Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan is in the midst of a searching debate on security that has been illuminated by a commission headed by a prominent business executive, Hiroshi Araki of Tokyo Electric Power. The commission has called on Japan to forge an "integrated security strategy" through "strategic consultations" with the US.
American officials said that, once they started talking with the Japanese about US deployments in Asia, it became apparent that both governments needed to agree on a "strategic context" before deciding on headquarters, troop dispositions and base issues.
The architect of the realignment, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, calls the prospective changes a "combined transformation." In Tokyo to continue the negotiations, he told reporters, "we are going to have increased capability to work with Japan on security concerns that directly relate to Japan," whether in Asia or elsewhere.
Among US military leaders, an advocate of closer US-Japan security coordination is Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, former commander of US Marine forces in Japan and now commander of all Marine forces in the Pacific. He has spent more time posted in Japan than many top US officers.
In response to a query, Gregson noted: "I have advocated in the past greater combined training for our forces, combined operations where appropriate, and even combined basing."
At his headquarters in Hawaii, he said: "I think we're on the first step of a period of unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between our two nations."
Feith, the Pentagon's number three official, said a US objective in repositioning forces was to make contingency plans more timely. Moving the Army's First Corps headquarters from the state of Washington to Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo, would put it in the region in which it would operate.
The US already has the Third Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters in Okinawa, will consolidate an aviation command at the Fifth Air Force in Yokota, west of Tokyo, and has the Seventh Fleet headquarters in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo. Having those commands relatively close to one another is intended to improve joint war planning and operations.