WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday stressed U.S. defense commitments to Japan, including the nuclear umbrella, in the face of growing missile threats from North Korea, while reiterating that Washington is against any action to weaken Japan’s administrative control of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
During a joint press conference following a meeting with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera at the Pentagon, Hagel said, “The United States remains steadfast in our defense commitments to Japan, including extended deterrence and a further nuclear umbrella.”
The two defense ministers agreed to continue close cooperation between the two countries as well as in a trilateral framework involving South Korea.
“The most obvious threat to stability in the region is the provocative behavior of North Korea,” Hagel said, adding he and Onodera made progress on plans to deploy a second X-band radar system, capable of tracking the trajectory of ballistic missiles, to Japan.
After aiming a stream of bellicose rhetoric against the United States and its allies in March and early April, North Korea has become relatively silent recently, but Onodera said that he has not received any information that will allow Japan to lower its level of alertness against Pyongyang.
On the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, Hagel said, “The United States does not take a position on the overall sovereignty of the islands but we do recognize they are under the administration of Japan and fall under our security treaty allocations.”
Warning that any actions that could raise tensions or lead to miscalculations will affect the stability of East Asia as a whole, he said the United States “opposes any unilateral course of action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administrative control” of the islets.
Onodera said he briefed the U.S. defense chief about Tokyo’s position that the Senkaku Islands are inherently Japanese in terms of history and international law.
“We will firmly protect our land, waters and air,” Onodera said.
Hagel’s remarks on the islands are likely to relieve concerns about U.S. backing for Tokyo’s position given the view that the United States is trying to avoid causing unnecessary tensions with China, a key strategic partner.
During their first face-to-face meeting, Onodera and Hagel also agreed on the need to step up bilateral defense cooperation, including reviewing the 1997 guidelines on bilateral defense cooperation.
“Minister Onodera and I also engaged in strategic discussions about the future of the alliance,” Hagel said. “Our staffs have been working for some time on a review of roles, missions and capabilities to inform any revisions to the defense guidelines that underpin our alliance cooperation.”
Onodera told the press conference that it will take several years to complete the review of the bilateral defense guidelines.
The two ministers also announced the launch of a defense working group on areas such as surveillance and reconnaissance as part of efforts to beef up bilateral cooperation.
Noting that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of regional security and prosperity, Hagel said, “Strengthening our security alliance is also critical to achieving the goal of the U.S. rebalance, enhancing prosperity and promoting peace and stability in the region.”
On the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, Hagel stressed the importance of implementing the bilateral agreement to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.
“Its implementation in concert with moving ahead on the Futenma replacement facility will ensure we maintain the right mix of capabilities in the region as we reduce our footprint on Okinawa and strengthen this alliance for the future,” he said.
Onodera also said the base relocation and the return of land used by U.S. forces south of Kadena Air Base are “important steps for significantly mitigating the impact on Okinawa.”
The defense minister said he invited Hagel to visit Japan this year and that they agreed to hold a two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers from the two countries, preferably this year.
The two defense chiefs also reaffirmed that the United States will ship 12 MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to the U.S. Iwakuni Air Station this summer prior to their eventual deployment to Futenma.
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