Tokyo Correspondent

TOKYO – J. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, has unveiled a bill with bipartisan support that is designed to promote the U.S. military’s “rebalance” across the Asia-Pacific region.

Jointly authored by Colleen Hanabusa, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, the bill makes it clear that the United States opposes “any unilateral attempt to undermine Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands” and reiterates Washington’s commitment to protecting Japan.

The Asia-Pacific Region Priority Act has been warmly received in Japan and comes just days after President Barack Obama paid a three-day state visit to Tokyo.

“This legislation seeks to make the United States’ ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific more than merely a slogan,” Forbes said. “By providing for specific actions to buttress U.S. military capabilities in the region and encouraging our allies to enhance their own capabilities, this bipartisan legislation aims to shape the military balance in the Asia-Pacific in the decades to come.”

The key elements of the legislation are designed to emphasize stability and peaceful cooperation in the region by focusing additional assets to counter the rise of China and the threat posed by a nuclear-armed and unpredictable regime in North Korea.

The legislation condemns coercive attempts to determine maritime disputes – a clear shot across the bows of China as it lays claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, as well as a number of small islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

It also reaffirms Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, describing it as “a cornerstone for Asia-Pacific peace and prosperity for more than half a century.”

The bill will also require enhanced assessments of security trends in the region, including a study on the modernization of the Chinese Navy – which recently deployed its first aircraft carrier – as well as space defense and deterrence strategies. Another area that will be examined is the military balance across the stretch of water that separates mainland China from Taiwan.

The timing of the bill appears to be fortunate given that China and Russia have announced that they will be carrying out a joint naval drill in the East China Sea at the end of May, a gesture that analysts said is designed to serve as a reminder to the United States and other Asian nations that Beijing and Moscow are still allies.

The Joint-Sea 2014 exercise will take place northwest of the Senkaku Islands and will be the first time the two powers have conducted drills so close to the disputed islands.

“These exercises could very well be understood as a message to the Japan-U.S. alliance or to Tokyo or Washington individually,” said Masafumi Iida, a China military analyst at the National Institute of Defense Studies in Tokyo. “For China, the message will be to Japan over the Senkaku islands, but for Russia, it will be more aimed at the United States and Europe over the situation in Ukraine.

“Both seem to be keen to defend their positions in the international community, but I do not believe it will be so beneficial to Russia to ally itself to China on the issue of the Senkakus,” he added.

Japan will monitor the exercises carefully, he said, and will be particularly concerned should they involve landing troops on a defended beachhead.

“The level of concern in Tokyo will depend on the contents of the exercise and where they take place in the East China Sea,” he said. “All we can do at the moment is wait and see.”

Beijing called on Washington and Tokyo to abandon what it termed their “Cold War mentality” during President Obama’s visit to Japan but was otherwise restrained in its comments on the president’s four-nation tour.

From Japan, Obama went to South Korea – Washington’s other key ally in Northeast Asia – before visiting Malaysia and the Philippines. In each capital city, he made a point of reiterating the commitment of the United States to ensure security and stability in the region, although there have been suggestions that the administration’s foreign policy has been hijacked by events in Europe, and particularly in the Ukraine.

Seeking to dismiss that notion, Obama told a press conference in Manila on April 28, “Our alliances in the Asia-Pacific have never been stronger; I can say that unequivocally.”