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Cohen Talks Security in Japan

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

TOKYO, April 9, 1997 – Significantly reducing the number of U.S. troops in Asia would set off an arms race among nations in the region, U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters here April 8.

Cohen reinforced U.S. commitment to maintaining 100,000 U.S. troops in Asia during a two-day visit with Japanese leaders and U.S. troops. He said significant U.S. presence promotes balance and stability in the region.

"Our presence at current levels is important," Cohen said. Nations in the region would be greatly apprehensive if they detected signs the United States was becoming less committed to Pacific security, he said.

"This would unleash a dynamic many would come to regret. ... a very negative dynamic," Cohen said. "Other countries would then feel an obligation to arm themselves to a greater level than they currently are." They would spend money to build defenses rather than their economies, he said.

Cohen's met first with U.S. Pacific Command officials in Hawaii before moving on to Japan April 7 and 8. During a final stop in Korea, his schedule included a trip to the Korean demilitarized zone near Panmunjom.

Meeting with Japanese leaders, Cohen strongly reinforced U.S. commitment to the region. He discussed other security issues, including continuing forward-basing, reducing the intrusiveness of military forces on local communities, updating defense guidelines and developing theater missile defenses.

"Our relationship with Japan is key to maintaining stability and balance and ensuring the prosperity of the entire Pacific region," Cohen told reporters. Japanese officials are currently trying to establish land-lease legislation to permit continued basing of U.S. troops in Okinawa and elsewhere.

Public support for U.S. forces in Japan diminished last year after U.S. servicemen raped an Okinawan school girl. Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has repeatedly assured U.S. officials he is committed to providing a stable, legal framework for continuing American forward-basing in Japan, a senior DoD official said.

"Prime Minister Hashimoto deserves a great deal of credit for the courage and leadership he has shown helping to resolve issues pertaining to Okinawa," Cohen said. "I understand, as a former politician, how difficult it is to balance local concerns with overriding national concerns," he said. Leaders on both sides face the challenge of developing public support for policies they deem in the best national interest, he said, adding, "It requires effort, and it requires persistence."

U.S. efforts to limit the intrusive footprint of American forces in the region are ongoing, Cohen said. Military officials have changed schedules to reduce flight noise and traffic. They've given back about 20 percent of the land formerly used for training on Okinawa. Japanese and U.S. officials are working out details for an offshore facility to house U.S. helicopter operations.

"We have taken measures to be sensitive to the needs of the Okinawan people," Cohen said, "... ways in which we can reduce the intrusion into their lives, but, nonetheless, maintain the same presence in order to protect essential security interests we have throughout the region."

U.S. and Japanese officials are also updating 1978 defense guidelines, Cohen said. The new guidelines will clarify the role of Japan's military forces should there be a regional crisis. Concern over famine in North Korea has led to discussions on the support Japan could provide in the event of a humanitarian disaster or an attack on the Republic of South Korea.

The Japanese constitution limits Japanese military forces to engaging in defensive operations. If a contingency arose, however, Japanese defense forces could possibly help to evacuate noncombatants, supply defense forces or provide humanitarian aid, Cohen said.

Another security issue on the U.S. defense secretary's agenda was encouraging Japanese leaders to participate in the development of theater missile defense. U.S. officials are going forward with research and development programs and would like to see Japan participate, Cohen said.

"We intend to develop the technology to protect our troops who are placed at risk by the proliferation of missile technology," Cohen said. "We hope the Japanese will share at some level in the research and development."

Because the United States is committed to defending the region in conjunction with its partners, he said, U.S. officials think they, too, should participate in developing the missile defense systems. "It's in their interest to do so, but they have to make that determination on their own," he said.

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