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Japan and the United States have reinforced their security ties significantly since laws went into force on March 29, 2016, to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense.

Speaking in the Diet last week, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi touted progress in Japan-U.S. defense cooperation since the national security laws took effect.

"Japan is no longer a country pressed by the United States to put 'boots on the ground' or 'show the flag,'" Motegi said, referring to symbolic phrases that had been used by Washington to urge the Self-Defense Forces to play a role in the war in Iraq.

The security laws allow the SDF to protect foreign military assets including vessels and aircraft. In May 2017, the SDF guarded a U.S. warship for the first time by deploying Maritime SDF destroyers.

The SDF engaged in missions to protect U.S. military assets 16 times in 2018, 14 times in 2019 and 25 times in 2020. The increase is "evidence of U.S. trust," a Defense Ministry official said.

The 2020 cases were four missions to protect U.S. vessels engaged in intelligence gathering and surveillance activities, including for possible ballistic missiles, and 21 missions to guard U.S. aircraft during joint exercises.

But details of such SDF missions, including the timing and locations, have been withheld.

"Information that can be made public is limited due to reasons on the U.S. side," Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters last week.

Motegi, Kishi and their U.S. counterparts are expected to discuss a greater SDF role in the defense of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea when they meet later this year.

Coast guard ships from China, which also claims the Senkakus, have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters off the islands. Washington says that the Senkakus are covered by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which stipulates U.S. defense obligations to Japan.

But a senior Foreign Ministry official said, "Japan needs to fight first, otherwise the United States won't give protection."

The scope of the SDF's protection is expanding. In October, Japan and Australia agreed to consider having the SDF protect Australian military assets. In the future, the coverage may also include vessels European countries will send to East Asia to counter China's maritime activities.

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