WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday hailed as "historic" a Japanese government decision to loosen restrictions on its military.
Hagel said once Japan's parliament passes implementing legislation, the Asian nation will be able to contribute more to regional security and expand its role on the world stage.
Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met with Hagel at the Pentagon and discussed a July 1 Cabinet decision to reinterpret the nation's pacifist constitution to allow its military to help defend allies, the particularly the U.S.
Hagel said the U.S. strongly supports the decision, and that the two governments should have new guidelines for defense cooperation by year's end.
Japan hosts 50,000 U.S. troops, the main American military contingent in the Asia-Pacific.
Hagel said the reforms will allow Japan to be more active in missile defense, counter-proliferation, counter-piracy, peacekeeping and a wide-range of military exercises.
"The United States and Japan will also be able to work more closely together to maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and other areas," Hagel told a news conference.
"We can raise our alliance to a new level, and we intend to do that," he said.
But the Cabinet decision to allow so-called "collective self-defense" has divided Japan's public and drawn sharp criticism from rival power China which claims it could portend a slide toward Japanese militarism. South Korea, a U.S. ally once colonized by Japan, has reacted cautiously.
Onodera said Japan, which is locked in a tense territorial standoff with China, remains committed to peace.
"It's natural for a great power like Japan to play a responsible role for the region based on the significance of the area and the increasingly acute regional security environment," Onodera told the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
He said Japan did not want confrontation with China, and was always open to dialogue with Beijing. But he said Japan would respond firmly to "unilateral behavior" that disrupts regional order.