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Hagel to Reassure Ally Japan After Russia’s Crimea Annexation

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Tokyo today to reassure its leaders the U.S. will come to Japan’s defense against military aggression, after NATO failed to stop Russia from annexing Crimea.

“I don’t think there’s any indication or any evidence that we are doing anything but strengthening our commitment to the security of Japan,” Hagel told reporters on board a military aircraft headed to Japan from Honolulu. “There is no indication or weakness on the part of the U.S. as to our complete and absolute commitment of the security of Japan.”

Japan is embroiled in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, where China asserts a claim to islets Japan controls, and ships and planes from both nations have been tailing one another since 2012.

Asked what message China should take from how the U.S., the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have responded to Crimea’s annexation, Hagel said Russia was paying a cost by being economically isolated through sanctions because it violated international norms.

In Japan, Hagel will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida over two days before heading to China for three days.

Hagel expressed support for Abe’s effort to legitimize Japan’s right to collective self defense, in an interview published today in the Nikkei newspaper.

Unlike predecessors critical of China’s growing military expenditures, Hagel said the Asian nation’s defense spending and modernization isn’t by itself alarming.

‘A Great Power’

“We recognize China is a great power and it’s going to continue to be a great power,” Hagel said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television in Honolulu where he hosted defense ministers from Southeast Asian nations. “It’s growing, it has a huge economy and has a great potential. It’s not particularly newsworthy or strange that a great power would build out its military to some extent.”

China’s intentions and what it does with that growing military capability are what matter, Hagel said. Through regular meeting and contacts among military officials the U.S. is encouraging China to be more transparent, he said.

U.S. unwillingness to use force to stop Russia and the reluctance of President Barack Obama’s administration to get militarily involved in the Syrian civil war are raising alarms about how the U.S. might respond to Chinese aggression against Japan, said Ken Jimbo, a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies and The Tokyo Foundation.

“There has been a general sense of fear that the U.S. is not viewed in the world as a security guarantor, especially in Syria and now in Ukraine,” Jimbo said in a phone interview from Tokyo.

Japan realizes it’s a treaty ally of the U.S., unlike those countries, “but at the same time Japan doesn’t want China to take advantage of the situation” and what appears to be relative weakness of the U.S. in using its military muscle, Jimbo said.

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