HONOLULU — U.S. and South Korean defense leaders strongly support Japan’s move toward allowing its armed forces to defend allies in combat, the chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a speech Tuesday.
“I think it’s a great first step,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said of the adoption of a resolution this week by Japan’s ruling coalition calling for changes in law that would allow Japan to assist countries with which it has “close ties” if those nations face “clear danger.”
Opponents argue the modifications are contrary to the country’s pacifist constitution.
Earlier in the day Dempsey met with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea “to discuss the common threat of North Korea and other challenges we face in the region,” he said.
“This was the first time in history that the (uniformed) chiefs of defense from our three countries have met together in person in that context,” Dempsey told an audience at the Pacific Forum held at the Pacific Club.
He declined to share many details of that tri-lateral discussion but offered that the topic of Japan’s proposed change of defense posture was central to the agenda.
“As chiefs of defense we had a conversation about what it could mean, but we also had a conversation about what it does not mean,” he said. “On that basis, I think we found a little opportunity to develop a little trust among each other.”
While the U.S. maintains close defense alliances separately with Japan and South Korea, relations between the two neighbors are icy. Resentments remain in South Korea over Japan’s conquest during World War II, and the countries have outstanding disputes over sovereignty of certain islands.
During a news conference Monday, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, said he believed the change in Japan’s constitution would “help stability” in the region.
“Japan is one of our key allies, and I welcome any improvement in capability that helps improve the alliance that we have with Japan.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also issued a statement Tuesday saying that the change would make the alliance between Japan and the U.S. “more effective.”
The resolution now moves to Japan’s elected Diet.
“Moving it from aspiration to reality is going to take some work, but as a first step in the relationship between Japan and the United States military becoming more interdependent – as opposed to us simply being responsible for protecting the region and the men and women who serve there – I think it’s a great first step,” Dempsey said.
The U.S. wants to maintain its commitment to its closest allies in the region, including Australia, Dempsey said, adding that “we also want to shape the future of the region so that we can manage a rising China in particular as a stabilizing influence, as an economic engine.”
The way to do that, he said, “is to actually be more present, not less present” in the Pacific. “[I]t would actually be our absence not our presence that could create miscalculation and misperception in the region,” he said. “We are a Pacific power and have always been.”
He described the tri-lateral relationship among Japan, South Korea and America as “not a matter of opportunity or choice,” but “an imperative” for defending the region against threats by North Korea and others.
“We’re well aware, though, that our elected leaders have other issues with which they have to deal,” Dempsey said, speaking for counterparts South Korean Navy Adm. Choi Yun-hee and Japanese Air Defense Forces Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki.
“But on certain issues -- for example, ballistic missile defense -- the future will absolutely demand that we work together,” he said. “We’re far more capable and can provide far more deterrence and actually defeat threats if we work more closely together.”