| Updated at: 0801 PST, Friday, January 14, 2011|
TOKYO: Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday said US forces needed to remain in Japan to deter the volatile North Korean regime and counter China's assertive stance in the region.
Making the case for a continued American military presence in Japan, Gates said in a speech at Keio University in Tokyo that US forces were crucial to meeting new security threats and challenges in the region.
"Without such a presence, North Korea?s military provocations could be even more outrageous, or worse, China might behave more assertively towards its neighbours," said Gates, according to a prepared text of the speech.
"Without the forward presence of US forces in Japan, there would be less information sharing and coordination, and we would know less about regional threats and the military capabilities of our potential adversaries," he said.
Gates, on a week-long Asia tour, cited a new strategy by Tokyo that stresses the importance of the country's southwestern islands, which he said underlined the importance of a "forward presence of US military forces in Japan".
He also said without US forces in the country it would take longer to evacuate civilians affected by war or natural disasters and crucial joint military exercises would be more costly and complicated to carry out.
The presence of almost 50,000 US troops in Japan, dating back to World War II, has been a source of friction over the years, with strong opposition in Okinawa over plans to relocate an air base on the southern island.
However, tensions on the divided Korean peninsula and China's rising military power have renewed interest in the US-Japan alliance, with officials in Tokyo calling for bolstering defence ties with Washington.
Japan's relations with China plunged to the lowest point in years over a territorial dispute involving islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, last year.
The row erupted in September after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese coastguard ships near the uninhabited islets.
Gates, who paid a visit to Beijing this week to shore up defence ties, renewed his warnings about China's latest weaponry, which he said presented a possible threat to the US military's long-running presence in the Pacific.
He said that "advances by the Chinese military in cyber and anti-satellite warfare pose a potential challenge to the ability of our forces to operate and communicate in this part of the Pacific".
But he said Washington and Tokyo were well-placed to counter the threat with high-tech hardware and that it was not a foregone conclusion that China would turn into a military rival.
"I disagree with those who portray China as an inevitable strategic adversary of the United States," he said.
"We welcome a China that plays a constructive role on the world stage," said Gates, referring to his visit this week aimed at improving defence ties with Beijing.
Gates tried to reassure Japan over the difficult issue of US forces on Okinawa, saying plans to relocate a US base would mean Americans would have a lower profile on the island.
In talks in Tokyo on Thursday, Gates and his Japanese counterpart, Toshimi Kitazawa, struck a positive tone on the issue with the Pentagon chief saying the United States hoped to move forward while "reducing the impact on the communities nearby".
The allies reached an accord in May to move the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station from an urban to a coastal area of Okinawa, but the Japanese government still faces strong opposition to the plan from islanders, many of whom want the noisy air base off the island altogether.
Japan's pacifist constitution bars it from deploying troops in combat missions abroad, and US officials have long argued that the country ultimately benefits from the American military presence, with US forces guaranteeing the country's security at a relatively low cost.