As the Unite States is suffering from growing losses in Iraq, it is looking for more international support, especially from Japan, one of its staunchest allies.
The Japanese government also seeks Washington's commitment to easing concerns over the nuclear weapons issue on the Korean Peninsular.
In his three-day visit to Japan, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reassured Tokyo that the United States will not sacrifice Japan's safety and bilateral relations despite its willingness to sign a written non-aggression guarantee with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Rumsfeld said at talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on Saturday that such a guarantee will do no damage to the US-Japan security alliance. He repeated the stance at a press conference after the meeting with his Japanese partner Shigeru Ishiba the same day, saying "The United States government is not going to make any arrangement with any other country that ... would in any way undermine our security agreement with Japan."
The United States refuses to sign a non-aggression treaty required by the DPRK in exchange for the latter's abandonment of nuclear development programs. But US President George W. Bush has said he would offer instead a written security guarantee.
Japan worries that such a move would disable a US military involvement if Japan would come under attacks from the DPRK.
The US hard-liner also hailed Japan's decision to spend more than US$1 billion on a missile defense system developed by the United States.
At the same time, the United States has been asking Japan to provide financial and manpower backing in Iraq's reconstruction and peacekeeping.
The Japanese government has promised a US$5 billion packet and endorsed new legislation to send the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq.
But the dispatch, which is expected to come off by the end of this year, is very likely to be postponed due to the deteriorating security situations out there.
Just one day before Rumsfeld's arrival on Friday, Japan suggested it would reconsider the timetable following a suicide bombing Wednesday in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq, killing at least 26people.
"We could send the SDF there if circumstances permit. But there is no such situation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said.
A hasty dispatch under the current circumstances could incur more disapproval of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The LDP failed to secure a majority alone in the lower house election last week, while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan made a huge leap. Surveys showed the Japanese want Koizumi to concentrate on boosting Japan's stagnant economy rather than on sending the SDF abroad. If there would be any SDF casualty, the premier is sure to face harsher challenges from the opposition parties and his party's internal opponents.
A Japanese team of some 10 SDF members left Saturday for Iraq to reexamine local security.
Rumsfeld downplayed Japan's cautious stance, saying "Each country needs to think through these issues and make judgments that are appropriate to their circumstance and their perspective, and we are completely comfortable with that."
However, US Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker asked Tokyo to fulfill the dispatch within this year. "I think the bottom line is that Japan still dispatches a group of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, probably this year," Kyodo News quoted Baker as saying in US base in Okinawa, where he was accompanying Rumsfeld for an inspection.
Rumsfeld said Washington is considering realigning the military presence in Okinawa in order to relieve the burden posed on the local people, but added the United States is "not at the stage of making proposals or anything like that but rather at initiating discussions."
Rumsfeld left Japan late Sunday for Seoul and held talks with South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil on Monday.
In a joint statement after the meeting, they urged the DPRK to "completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons programs," and reaffirmed the "use of weapons of mass destruction would have the gravest consequences."
Rumsfeld did not urged South Korea to send more combat troops to Iraq, saying "it's up to each country to decide the most appropriate way on such matter."
South Korea already sent some 675 non-combatants to the Middle East country in May at the request of the United States, and has decided to send more.
However, it is reported that Washington wants Seoul to contribute larger troops dominated by combatants.
(Xinhua News Agency November 18, 2003)