HONG KONG — The head of the U.S. Defense Department says Washington plans to send two more missile defense warships to Japan to counter the threat posed by North Korea's actions.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a news conference in Tokyo Sunday after meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, that two AEGIS missile defense ships will be sent to Japan by 2017, bolstering the U.S. missile defense force to seven ships.
On his second day in Japan, Hagel announced that the United States will increase military support to its Asian ally.
Hagel said, "In response to Pyongyang's pattern of provocative and destabilizing actions, including recent missile launches and violations of recent U.N. security council resolutions, I can announce today that the United States is planning to forward deploy two additional Aegis ballistic missile defense ships to Japan by 2017."
During the most recent flare-up of Korean tensions in late March, North Korea fired shells over South Korean waters close to the North's western coast. South Korea responded and the two countries exchanged hundreds of live shells in just a few hours.
Recent provocations by North Korea also included the firing of a mid-range missile capable of hitting Japan.
Hagel said, "For the safety of Japan and of eastern Asia, we believe that Japan's Aegis system and the United States' Aegis system is very effective. As the secretary said, that two new ships that are able to respond to ballistic missile threats will be deployed to Japan, this is very important for the region."
Hagel also spoke about China, a country he will visit after leaving Japan.
Relations between China and Japan have hit a low point because of a territorial dispute over islets in resource-rich waters of the East China Sea.
While the U.S. has not sided with any country on the islands' ownership, it acknowledges Japan's de facto management and is treaty-bound to protect Tokyo in case of aggression.
On Sunday, Hagel drew a parallel with Russia's annexation of Crimea, saying, "You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimation whether it's in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe."
What happened in Ukraine has some resonance in Asia, where China is embroiled in bitter disputes over its maritime boundaries to the East and South.
Concerns about China
Countries like the Philippines and Japan have raised concerns about Beijing's increasingly assertive stance in stating its territorial claims.
Hagel called China a great power, but said the country should respect its neighbors, be more transparent about its military power and refrain from coercion and intimidation.
"With this power, comes new and wider responsibilities is that how you use that power, how do you employ that military power," said Hagel. "And I want to talk with Chinese about all of that particularity transparency. This is a key dimension of relationships. "
The defense secretary will depart for Beijing on Monday.
Analysts in China say the territorial disputes are likely to come up during Hagel's visit, as are military cooperation and measures to deal with North Korea.