US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter yesterday started talks with his Japanese counterpart aimed at demonstrating that the two countries’ security alliance is tighter than ever amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Carter’s visit coincides with the first update in US-Japan defense cooperation guidelines since 1997, a revision that will expand the scope for interaction between the two allies in line with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to ease the constraints of Japan’s pacifist constitution on the nation’s military.
A top US commander last month said that Abe’s move to allow Tokyo to come to the aid of an ally under attack would pave the way for closer cooperation between US and Japanese forces across Asia.
Such expanded training and joint missions might extend through the South China Sea — where Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations have rival claims — to the Indian Ocean.
Neither Tokyo nor Washington have territorial claims in the South China Sea, but the US Seventh Fleet operates in the area and a Japanese naval presence could irritate Beijing.
Washington has welcomed a broader regional military role for Japan, as the US pushes its allies in Asia, including Australia, to do more as China takes an increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes.
In a written interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun published yesterday, Carter expressed concern about China’s land reclamation in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“We are concerned by the scope and pace of China’s land reclamation activities, which are inconsistent with China’s own past commitments to ASEAN countries,” the newspaper quoted Carter as saying.
“We are especially concerned at the prospect of militarization of these outposts. These activities seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions,” he said. “We urge China to limit its activities and exercise restraint to improve regional trust.”
It as reported in February that China was rapidly creating artificial islands from six reefs in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the South China Sea. Beijing says the work falls “within the scope of China’s sovereignty.”
US and Philippine troops are set to take part in annual military exercises this month near the Spratlys in the largest such drills since the allies resumed joint activities in 2000.
Abe’s government plans to submit bills to parliament in the coming months to ratify his Cabinet’s decision last year to allow Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense, the biggest shift in Japanese security policy in decades.
Carter, Japanese Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani and the two countries’ foreign ministers are expected to unveil the new defense guidelines later this month, before Abe meets US President Barack Obama on April 28 for a summit in Washington.
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