TOKYO — The top two U.S. allies in Asia are inching toward greater military cooperation, a longstanding U.S. goal that’s closer than ever because of growing concern over North Korea.

But the preliminary military agreement reached by South Korea and Japan on Monday also represents an incremental but important development in Asian defense cooperation with an eye toward China, experts said.

While North Korea has set the political stage for mending ties between the two estranged countries, “South Korea-Japan (military) cooperation has more implications for China than the Korean peninsula,” said Denny Roy of the East-West Center, an education and research group in Hawaii.

“North Korea provides the political excuse for what would otherwise be a strategic move” against China, Roy said. “It’s a fig leaf.”

“Japan-South Korea defense cooperation is an example of what the Chinese want to avoid,” said Roy, a senior fellow at the center. “China has long understood, and feared, that its rise might cause other countries in the region to cooperate strategically against (it.)”

The U.S., Japan and South Korea have expressed concerns over China’s military growth, its territorial disputes with its neighbors and advancements in its missile programs. But all three allies have stopped short of declaring China a threat in order to keep diplomatic and military channels open, said Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Beijing this week to attempt to revive defense ties with China, whose perceived lack of military transparency has been criticized by the three nations and the international community. Gates is also expected to meet with his counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul while in Asia.

Labelling China a threat would only escalate tension and become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Klinger said. But moves to strengthen Japan-South Korea military cooperation represent long-range goals for the U.S. and its democratic Asian allies to hedge against China’s massive and growing military.

The defense ministers from Japan and South Korea agreed to cooperate on intelligence-sharing and logistical support, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said after a meeting Monday with his counterpart in Seoul.

“It was a fruitful meeting,” he said.

No details or timeline for inking the deal were available Tuesday. If agreed upon, it would be the first military pact between the former rivals since Tokyo’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula ended in 1945.

Washington, Tokyo and Seoul declared a united front against Pyongyang on Dec. 6 after the North’s shelling of a populated island in the South and subsequent revelations about advancements in the Communist regime’s nuclear program. Until now, the statement has fallen short of action, mostly because of lingering tension rooted in South Korea’s resentment of Japan’s military rule, which ended with Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Although the two Asian economic giants have forged cultural and economic ties, the idea of Japanese troops operating in South Korea remains a sensitive topic on the Korean peninsula. Among other crimes, the Japanese forced Korean women into prostitution, enslaved workers and banned Koreans from speaking or writing in their native tongue.

Although the Japanese prime minister formally apologized to South Korea last August for his nation’s wartime actions, Tokyo’s conciliatory overtures have been received coolly in Seoul.

Meanwhile, U.S. military commanders have renewed calls for trilateral cooperation in the wake of the latest provocations from the North.

Such a triumvirate is vital “in terms of showing strength and getting to a point where we’re able to deter North Korean behavior,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to Tokyo in December, following Pyongyang’s Nov. 23 shelling of Yeongpyong Island.

Should conflict erupt on the Korean peninsula, Japan would likely play a crucial role in U.S. and South Korean combat efforts, experts said.

The agreements Japan and South Korea pledged to develop Monday open intelligence sharing on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs as well as mutual supply support for other regional contingencies.

South Korea and Japan sent observers to participate in each other’s military exercises with the U.S. last year, a development viewed as an important step toward deeper military cooperation. But most experts agree that progress toward actual three-way military exercises will be slower.

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