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Japan flexes its muscles, shifts its defense policy with Pentagon support

It has been a long, complicated week in Japan. Thousands of people have taken to the street to protest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to reinterpret the country’s constitution to allow for the defense  of Japanese allies in a concept known as “collective self-defense,” a move away from the internal self-defense model Tokyo has embraced for decades. One man even set himself on fire in protest.

The move by Abe isn’t a surprise, however. The Japanese military has gradually been expanding its capabilities for years, training with U.S.troops in a variety of disciplines. In March, Japanese officials even indicated they wanted to establish a new 3,000-man amphibious force modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps to defend its far-flung islands.

Abe has stressed that the policy change is not designed to draw Japan into unnecessary wars. Rather, he said, it is necessary to protect Japan’s interests.

Japan’s military growth has been fueled by their concerns over the even broader expansion of China’s military. China announced in March that its 2014 military budget would be boosted 12.2 percent to $131.6 billion, stoking fears again about Beijing’s long-term plans.

As noted in this Checkpoint post, China also is locked in a long-time argument with Japan over who owns a string of islands in the East China Sea. In November, China unexpectedly and unilaterally established an air defense identification zone in the region, a show of strength that rattled Japan and other countries in the region. More recently, Japanese and Chinese leaders traded barbs about an incident in which aircraft from the two countries flew uncomfortably close in the ADIZ area.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Tuesday that he welcomes Japan’s new defense policy. It will enable their military to engage in a wider range of operations, making the U.S.-Japanese alliance more effective, he said.

“This decision is an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security,” he said. “The new policy also complements our ongoing efforts to modernize our alliance through the revision of our bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation.”

Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, will be visiting Washington next week, Hagel said. The issue is certain to come up then.