YOKOSUKA, Japan -- 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 received a warm welcome from Japanese officials because of its role in disaster relief following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northern Japan.
At a ceremony, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the vessel's arrival and its welcome 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. It passed new laws during a chaotic parliamentary session last month that allow the country's troops to also defend their allies, mainly the U.S., overseas.
Abe says Japan needs the laws to increase its capabilities amid China's growing military assertiveness, North Korea's missile and nuclear ambitions, and other security concerns. But many Japanese worry the new laws increase the risk of Japan becoming embroiled in U.S.-led wars.
The Ronald Reagan, carrying 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 to be deployed later this year in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, bringing the number of U.S. warships based there 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 that mission have sued the operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, saying it lied about the levels of radiation in the area.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.