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SEOUL — Defense Secretary Robert Gates faced all too familiar regional threats and issues during his latest three-day swing of Japan and the Korean peninsula: North Korea’s aggression, the U.S. military’s increasingly unpopular presence on Japanese soil, China’s unknown intentions.

But with a new commander in the Pacific, a new government in Japan, new conciliatory overtures from North Korea and a new attempt at reopening military relations with China, Gates and his team arrived in Asia this week to confront a new set of diplomatic realities.

Japan, home to more than 30,000 U.S. forces, is under new leadership after a half-century of one-party rule. And the new leaders are eager to exert an unprecedented amount of independence from their American patrons. North Korea is peppering its usual acts of defiance — such as missile tests — with renewed overtures toward diplomacy. And China, which has grown its military at an unprecedented pace and last year rebuffed a U.S. ship on a previously scheduled Thanksgiving port call, now appears open to increased military cooperation.

Island-hopping from Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii to U.S. bases and East Asian defense ministries in Japan and South Korea provided a stark reminder that America’s extended influence and presence is the legacy of World War II and the subsequent Cold War strategy designed to contain communism’s feared domino effect.

Gates’ advice to the incoming PACOM commander, Adm. Robert Willard, was to think like an entrepreneur in addition to an admiral when considering approaches to the Pacific. That means addressing 21st century security questions with contemporary solutions.

On his second day on the job, Willard told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday that his top concern was trying to understand the intent behind China’s recent military build-up.

To do so, he plans to get U.S. servicemembers more face time with the Chinese military — from grunt to general.

Meanwhile, China’s counterpart to Gates, Gen. Xu Caihou, will make what the Pentagon sees as an overdue visit to Washington on Monday, followed by a tour of several military installations.

Additionally, North Korea again this week invited U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth to visit Pyongyang, and the regime recently discussed holding another Korean family reunification event and requested more humanitarian aid from Seoul, the New York Times reported.

While South Korean officials have dismissed much of those gestures as insincere posturing, U.S. officials note they are happening nonetheless.

Nobody has ever accused the military of trusting foreign nations too quickly, and there was plenty of tough talk in Gates’ joint press conferences and sessions with the traveling press.

“North Korea continues to pose a threat to the Republic of Korea, to the region and to others,” Gates said standing next to South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae Young.

“As such, I want to reaffirm the unwavering commitment of the United States to the alliance and to the defense of the Republic of Korea.”

In Tokyo, now one year before the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the secretary said the legacy of the past century is that the two countries have the chance to forge “an alliance of equals in the 21st century.”

“I commented to the minister this morning that one of the biggest changes that I had seen between the time I left the government in 1993 and returning to government in 2006 was the extraordinary improvement in the relationship between the United States and Japan and how much closer the alliance is now than it was even 13 years ago — 15 years ago now,” said Gates.

At the same time, East Asia’s regional security, he said, is “if anything, becoming more complex.”

Indeed, the greatest challenge for regional alliances may not be another country at all.

"I made the comment to the minister in our meeting that in some ways as you look around this part of the world and recent developments in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, the greatest enemy seems to be Mother Nature," Gates said.

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