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In tense East Asia, US defense secretary hopes to strengthen ties with allies

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(Read caption) US Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses US military personnel at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Thursday.

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US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was “flattered” by the greeting of ballistic missiles that North Korea fired during his first official visit to American military allies Japan and South Korea.

The new top US military official is in a region where relations between China, South Korea, and Japan have been tense, thatched about as much with complicated questions of history and pride as with robust trade and commerce.

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Carter headed to South Korea today after discussions in Japan about possible new rules that would allow the country more latitude in military missions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to visit Washington on April 29 to address Congress, a first for a Japanese head of state.

Reuters cited South Korean authorities as saying two surface-to-air missiles were fired by the North off its west coast Tuesday, adding to the four it launched last Friday. Secretary Carter told reporters that “If it was a welcoming message to me,” he was honored.

Meanwhile, as Carter visited the Korean peninsula, Pentagon officials told reporters in Washington yesterday that Pyongyang has the ability to mount a small nuclear warhead on its new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08.

Carter will meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday. They're expected to discuss the deployment of a proposed US high altitude missile defense system, which China opposes.

Much of the regional backdrop to Carter’s trip is set around both the rise of China and Japan’s attempt to steadily revise its World War II history. The 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender to end the war is in August. 

China’s more assertive military posture and claims in the South China Sea have worried a Japan that under Prime Minister Abe has been trying to counter decades of pacifism with a tougher spirit.

Yet Abe’s efforts to display martial zeal and stand tall in Asia have also brought steady internal revisions to its wartime history. Attempts to downplay the military's treatment of Korean women as prostitutes during the war is seen as a terrific affront to South Korea. Media and diplomats in Seoul have expressed concern that Washington has ignored their grievances in favor of boosting relations with Tokyo and constraining Beijing.

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US officials privately hope Carter can start work to ameliorate tensions between Japan and South Korea, which are not currently talking to each other formally.

Certainly Chinese expansion, and particularly its new land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, got Carter's attention in Tokyo.

China has been patrolling reefs and shallow sand bars in parts of the sea where oil and other valuable minerals may be in abundance. But Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan also claim many of the same areas. 

“While we don’t take a stand in any of those territorial disputes, we take a strong stand against militarization of those disputes,” Carter told reporters in Japan, reports The Wall Street Journal. He asked China to “limit its activities.”

The  New York Times, with satellite photos on its front page today of giant sandbars near the Spratly Islands, reports that China “has been dredging enormous amounts of sand from around the reef and using it to build up land mass.” The project involves first building shacks, then full-scale buildings, on the outcroppings as naval vessels and troop ships patrol nearby.

Carter, in an interview with the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun, said Chinese actions in the South China Sea “seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions.”

It is not clear what the new Japan-US military rules would exactly involve.  The Washington Post took a crack at the concept in a report yesterday:

Under a previous bilateral arrangement, Japanese forces could protect the U.S. military only if it was operating in Japan’s direct defense, and solely in areas close to Japan. U.S. officials say the new rules, once given final approval, would broaden the geographic area where this could take place and, significantly, allow Japan to respond to an attack on the U.S. military even if the U.S. forces are not acting in defense of Japan at the time.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the new rules “a big, big deal.” He said they were also intended to empower Japan to use its missile defense systems to protect American military assets under a greater range of circumstances.