YOKOSUKA, Japan (AP) — The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan docked at its new home in Japan's Yokosuka naval port Thursday just as Tokyo tries to deepen defense ties with the U.S. under new security laws that expand the role of Japan's military.
The warship's arrival received a warm welcome from Japanese officials because of its role in disaster relief after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster as part of the U.S. government's "tomodachi," or friends, project.
At a welcoming ceremony, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the arrival and the welcome the vessel received are "visible symbols of our shared commitment to one another and regional stability."
"Together we provide the most critical pillar of international security, one that only maritime services can deliver," he said.
Outside the port, however, a small group of citizens protested the aircraft carrier's deployment as a move to step up Japan's military cooperation with the U.S.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has pushed to enhance the role of Japan's military in national defense and in global peacekeeping. His government enacted new laws that would allow the country's troops to also defend their allies, mainly the U.S., overseas, in a chaotic parliamentary session last month disrupted by opposition lawmakers' vote-delaying attempts.
Abe says Japan needs the laws to increase its deterrence capabilities amid China's growing assertiveness, North Korea's missile and nuclear ambitions, and other security concerns. But many Japanese worry the new laws increase the risk of Japan being embroiled in U.S.-led wars.
The carrier, which came with about 5,000 crewmembers, replaces the USS George Washington, which was the first U.S. nuclear-powered warship based in Japan, where atomic weapons are a sensitive issue. The George Washington, which arrived in 2008, left in May for a multiyear overhaul in the U.S.
Three destroyers are set to be deployed later this year to Yokosuka, near Tokyo, bringing the number of Yokosuka-based U.S. warships to 14, the largest since Japan's World War II defeat in 1945, Kyodo News reported.
During its relief work four years ago, the Ronald Reagan ferried food and water to the city of Sendai in disaster-hit northern Japan. About 80 sailors on the mission have sued the operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, alleging that it lied about the levels of radiation in the area.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.