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By Isabel Reynolds
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's alliance with the United States will become even more important with China's rise as a military power, Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said on Thursday, dismissing concerns that ties could weaken.
The new Democratic Party government's pledge to take a more independent diplomatic stance from the United States has caused uncertainty among investors, given the pivotal role of the alliance in a region also home to an unpredictable North Korea.
U.S. efforts to improve relations with Beijing have also sparked concerns about whether its alliance with Japan, whose own ties with Beijing have often been fraught, could be undermined.
Kitazawa reaffirmed the importance of the relationship with Washington a week ahead of a visit by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and less than a month before U.S. President Barack Obama visits both Japan and China.
"It is true that China is building up its navy and air force. But their intentions are not clear to us," Kitazawa said.
"As China increases its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, there may be countries that feel threatened. In that sense, the value of the Japan-U.S. alliance will actually increase."
A range of security issues, from U.S. bases on the island of Okinawa to Japan's likely withdrawal from a naval refuelling mission backing U.S. forces in Afghanistan, have caused disquiet ahead of the alliance's 50th anniversary next year.
MORE OF THE SAME?
Kitazawa said changes to the relationship would be minor.
"Some details may have changed, but for the most part we want to improve what we already have," he said of the alliance. The U.S.-Japan joint ballistic missile defence programme will, for example, be largely unchanged, he said.
U.S. officials have also maintained an upbeat tone on ties since the Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide election victory in August.
"Overall, we are very confident that our relationship between the United States and Japan will continue to be a cornerstone of our engagement in the Asia-Pacific region," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. "I see a really healthy revitalisation."
Some analysts say changes are to be welcomed.
"The relationship will be renegotiated, modernized and will be healthier and even stronger over the long term for it," Steve Clemons of U.S. think tank New America Foundation said in a recent essay.
Kitazawa said this week that Japan would withdraw its ships from an Indian Ocean refuelling mission when its legal mandate expires, although no final decision has been made.
He said on Thursday the mission was highly unlikely to re-start, but denied Japan was returning to what critics call "cheque-book diplomacy," or providing cash rather than personnel to back U.S. military activities.
"It's a mistake to call it 'chequebook diplomacy' -- it is the diplomacy of the heart," he said.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has raised the possibility of expanding civilian contributions to Afghanistan, possibly by providing job training to help former Taliban fighters make a living, but noted the danger of dispatching civilians.
On the question of U.S. bases, Kitazawa said Japan's pacifist constitution obliged it to accept the presence of the forces, but that it was important to relieve the disproportionate burden on the southern island of Okinawa. Almost half U.S. forces in Asia are based in Japan.
Despite its concerns over China's military rise, Japan wants to improve its own ties with Beijing, which have grown warmer in recent years, though ill-feeling remains over Tokyo's military aggression before and during World War Two.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama often speaks of his ambitions to secure stability by creating an East Asian community inspired by the European Union, although he admits that differing levels of development within the region make this a long-term aim.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing)