The U.S. and Japan signed off Monday on revamped mutual defense guidelines that would allow Japan's Self-Defense Forces to take on a more active role in the region and the world while seeking to avoid a confrontation with China.
"These guidelines eliminate geographic restrictions" on Japan's deployment of forces worldwide, a senior Defense Department official said last Friday.
"It is a big deal," said the official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity. "It's a big deal because the region has changed," requiring a larger role for Japan.
The new guidelines represent "big differences in the way the alliance will operate," the official said.
The new rules were agreed to at a meeting in New York City Monday between Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry and their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.
Carter said that U.S.-Japan defense cooperation had changed "from being locally focused to globally focused, and of course that's completely appropriate given the way the world has changed since 1997" when the guidelines were last revised.
State and Defense Department officials stressed that the agreement was not specifically aimed at countering China's aggressive moves in the South and East China Seas, but Kerry made an indirect reference to Beijing's efforts to exert control.
"We reject any suggestion that freedom of navigation, overflight and other unlawful uses of the sea and airspace are privileges granted by big states to small ones, subject to the whim and fancy of the big state," Kerry said.
Under the old rules, Japanese forces could assist American troops only if they were operating in the direct defense of Japan.
The new guidelines reflected the re-interpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution last year by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and also reflected Abe's call for "proactive pacifism" in the region by Japan.
"It means that Japan can defend U.S. ships engaged in missile defense activities in the vicinity of Japan," the senior defense official said. The official gave the example of Navy Aegis destroyers deployed as the first line of defense against a potential North Korean missile attack on the U.S.
The official also said that the new agreement "means that Japan can respond to attacks on third countries if they are in close association with Japan and if those attacks directly affect Japanese security."
The new guidelines marked "the establishment of Japan's capacity to defend not just its own territory, but also the United States and other partners as needed," Kerry said.
In return, Kerry said the U.S. was committed to Japan's claim to the disputed Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China.
The U.S. "commitment to Japan's security remains ironclad and covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku islands," Kerry said.
The announcement of the new guidelines came as Abe began a week-long visit to the U.S. in Boston, where he spoke at Harvard.
On Tuesday, Abe was scheduled to visit Arlington National Cemetery and the memorial to the legendary "Go For Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-Americans who fought in Italy in World War II. Later Tuesday, Abe will attend a state dinner at the White House.
On Wednesday, Abe will become the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress.
His visit drew a sharp response from China, which noted the upcoming 70th anniversary in August of the end of World War II with Japan's surrender. China has repeatedly charged that Abe has courted rightists in Japan by refusing to make a sincere apology for Japan's aggression in the war.
A commentary Monday in Xinhua, a state-run Chinese news agency, covered Abe's trip to Washington D.C.
"On Capitol Hill, under the global media spotlight, he (Abe) should seize that opportunity to show remorse over Japan's rightist swagger in recent years and make a long-awaited apology for his country's wartime crimes -- loud and clear."
"And for its part, Washington should also refrain from the urge to use Tokyo as an instrument to pursue its decades-old policy of containing China in pushing forward its 'pivot to Asia' initiative," the Xinhua commentary said.
At Harvard, Abe told the students that his "role is to lead the nation to think of itself again as the 'Little Engine That Could.'"
However, a student challenged Abe in a question-and-answer session to apologize for Japanese military's brutal occupation of Korea in World War II that included running brothels that enslaved so-called Korean "comfort women."
Through a translator, Abe said Japan was attempting to provide "realistic relief" to the victims, but gave no specifics. He also pointed to Japan's contributions to United Nations' campaigns for women's rights.
"My heart aches when I think about the people that were victimized by human trafficking and who were subjected to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description," Abe said in an indirect reference to the comfort women. "We have very resolutely determined that, in the 21st century, women's human rights should not be violated."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com