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U.S. to Add Missile Defenses in Japan for N. Korean Threat

Patriot Missile Launcher in Tokyo
A Japanese soldier walks past a Patriot missile launcher deployed in Tokyo, on April 15, 2013. Photographer: Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today said the U.S. will expand its missile defenses in Japan to counter the North Korean threat while calling on China to act responsibly to resolve disputes over contested islands.

The U.S. will assign two more Aegis-class destroyers to Japan by 2017, expanding its regional deployment of the missile-defense warships to seven, Hagel said at a news conference in Tokyo today after meeting with Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera.

“A key focus for our talks today was the threat posed by North Korea,” Hagel said. “In response to Pyongyang’s pattern of provocative and destabilizing actions, including recent missile launches in violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” the U.S. “is planning to forward-deploy two additional Aegis ballistic missile-defense ships to Japan by 2017.”

Hagel, who leaves for China tomorrow, said he’ll call on the leaders of that country to act responsibly commensurate with their growing economic and military power.

“Great powers have great responsibilities and China is a great power,” Hagel said. “With this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power. How do you employ that military power? I want to talk with the Chinese about all of that, particularly transparency.”

Reassuring Comments

While boosting missile defense addresses the shared threat of North Korean missile attacks that Japan and the U.S. face, Hagel’s comments on China may reassure Japan where some are alarmed at the possibility that the U.S. might not intervene should China use force in a territorial dispute with Japan.

China and Japan both claim a group of uninhabited islets under Japan’s control in the East China Sea.

Ships and planes from both nations have been tailing one another around the isles, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, since the dispute was inflamed in September 2012 when Japan’s government purchased three of the islets from a private owner.

The islands fall “under Article 5 of our Mutual Security Treaty,” Hagel said. “America’s treaty commitments are inviolable, and we strongly oppose any unilateral coercive action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administrative control.”

The addition of missile-defense ships to Japan follows the U.S. decision last year to deploy a second tracking radar in Japan and additional interceptor systems in Alaska capable of destroying North Korean ballistic missiles, Hagel said.

Japan’s Fleet

Japan has its own fleet of four ships with missile-defense capability, as well as ground-based interceptors.

Onodera has authorized troops to shoot down any incoming North Korean missile, the Asahi newspaper said yesterday after the North launched two ballistic missiles in March.

“This move to significantly bolster our naval presence is another action that strengthens our alliance and increases deterrence against North Korean aggression,” Hagel said.

He also said he welcomed Japan’s efforts to boost its own defenses and contribute more to regional security, including by re-examining its interpretation of its pacifist constitution to let Japanese troops defend allies. Hagel expressed support for Japan’s loosening of restrictions on defense exports, according to a summary of their talks issued by the Ministry of Defense.

The U.S. missile defense deployments are also part of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, a senior defense official traveling with Hagel told reporters. The U.S. Navy has about 30 Aegis-class ships, the official said.

‘Constructive’ Relationship

Hagel urged Japan to build a “constructive” relationship with China and called for stronger trilateral security ties between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The latter three countries are set to hold official level defense talks in Washington later this month, Hagel said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has yet to meet with Chinese leaders amid the row over territory and reignited anger over Japan’s past aggression in Asia.

Onodera agreed that “given the worsening security environment in the Asia-Pacific,” including North Korea’s nuclear weapon development and missile launches, it was important for Japan to strengthen trilateral ties with the U.S. and South Korea, as well as with Australia and Southeast Asian nations.

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