US, Japan boost defense relationship with eyes on threats from China, North Korea

The United States and Japan are boosting their defense relationship, allowing Japan to play a bigger role in global military operations with an eye on potential threats from China and North Korea.

Before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington this week, the two countries' foreign and defense ministers met in New York on Monday and signed off on revisions to the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines. They are the first changes to the rules that govern U.S.-Japan defense cooperation since 1997 and will be subject to security legislation pending in Japan's parliament.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the shift marks a historic transformation in the post-WWII relationship between Tokyo and Washington that recognizes the "evolving risks and dangers both in Asia-Pacific and across the globe." He said the alliance had "matured to one of the strongest on earth" and that the changes would allow the U.S. and Japan to better manage growing threats in the region and elsewhere.

"The world has changed much since 18 years ago," said Defense Secretary Ash Carter. "We face new threats, new domains, new geographies."

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida agreed, saying that "the security situation around Japan is becoming more harsh and difficult."

The revisions boost Japan's role in missile defense, mine sweeping and ship inspections amid growing Chinese assertiveness in disputed areas in the East and South China Sea claimed by Beijing. The new arrangements also allow Japan to dispatch its armed forces beyond the region for logistical backup of U.S. military's global operations, in distant areas including the Middle East.

Japan's military role is currently limited to its own self-defense, and the country's war-renouncing constitution still prohibits pre-emptive strikes, leaving any offensive action to the U.S. The United States has nearly 50,000 troops based in Japan.

U.S. officials say the most significant part of the revisions is the elimination of current geographic limits on activities by the Japanese self-defense forces. Those details remain to be worked out, but the U.S. foresees Japanese forces playing an international role in peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief operations and ballistic missile defense.

The changes will allow Japan to shoot down a ballistic missile headed toward the United States even if Japan itself is not threatened, officials said. In addition, Japan also could come to the defense of U.S. ships engaged in ballistic missile defense near Japan and the Japanese military will be able to respond to attacks on third countries if they are "in close association with" Japan and if those attacks "directly affect Japanese security," the officials said.

Importantly for Tokyo, the revisions come with a renewed pledge of the U.S. position that the Senkaku Islands — a group of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — fall under Japanese administration and are within the scope of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. The foreign and defense ministers said they "oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan's administration of these islands." China also claims the islands, which Beijing calls Diaoyu, and the dispute has been a major irritant in Japanese-Chinese relations.

The revisions recommit both the U.S. and Japan to realign American forces in Japan, including the controversial replacement facility for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and the movement of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The revisions will also permit closer U.S.-Japan sharing of information gathered in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, and they will be allowed to do more in co-development and co-production of weapons and in other forms of defense industrial cooperation. They also will coordinate more closely in cybersecurity and in space, including in satellite early warning.

To coordinate the revised strategy, the U.S. and Japan will create an Alliance Coordination Mechanism, which will be standing body for coordinating defense activities in peacetime and in war. On the U.S. side it will be represented by officials from the Defense Department, State Department, Joint Staff and U.S. Forces Japan. On the Japanese side it will be officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense and the Self Defense Forces.

U.S. officials said China would be briefed on the details sometime this week.


Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Washington.