Capping more than three years of grueling negotiations, top Japanese and U.S. officials signed a set of agreements Monday in Washington to realign the U.S. military forces in Japan by 2014 and take the security alliance to a new level.

The agreements put the finishing touches on such thorny issues as the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa and the transfer of some 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The initiatives are part of the ongoing transformation of U.S. military forces worldwide to cope better with new security problems emerging after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, while reducing host city burdens in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. They represent the first comprehensive shakeup of the U.S. military presence in Japan since the end of World War II.

The joint statement — released by Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — included renewed pledges to strengthen Japan-U.S. military cooperation in such areas as ballistic missile defense, bilateral contingency planning, international peacekeeping, and enhancement of the interoperability of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.

“Ministers recognized that the implementation of these realignment initiatives will lead to a new phase in alliance cooperation,” says the statement jointly released after the Security Consultative Committee meeting of the four ministers, better known as the “two-plus-two” security talks.

Under the finalized agreements, the command structure of U.S. Army Japan at Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture will be modernized to joint task force-capable operational headquarters by the 2008 U.S. fiscal year.

Zama is expected to play a key role in contingencies in areas surrounding Japan such as the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, the headquarters of a Ground Self-Defense Force Central Readiness Force Command will also be transferred to Camp Zama by fiscal 2012, a move that will enhance the interoperability of the two countries’ forces, according to a road map shown in the joint paper.

Japan’s Air Defense Command, now located in Fuchu, western Tokyo, will be moved to the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Air Force at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo by fiscal 2010, the road map says.

The accord comes as many communities tapped to host the U.S. facilities still voice opposition to the plans. What is more, the government must now win the understanding of taxpayers to shoulder the necessary costs if Japan is to hold up its end of the agreements as scheduled.

The total financial burden for Japan is estimated at 2 trillion yen to 3 trillion yen, a figure that has already sparked domestic debate on how the money can be squeezed out of the already debt-ridden state coffers and austere defense budgets.

The other main points of the road map include the U.S. setting up an X-band radar system for early ballistic missile warning at an Air Self-Defense Force base in Aomori Prefecture by the end of this summer. U.S. carrier aircraft now stationed in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, will be moved to a U.S. Marine Corps air base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, by fiscal 2014.

In releasing the paper, the four ministers also renewed their pledges to strengthen democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They called on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program and North Korea to terminate immediately its nuclear development program unconditionally.

The joint paper, apparently with China in mind, points to the need for more transparency in the ongoing modernization of military forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

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