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New US envoy reassures Japan over security pact

The new US ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty

Narita, Japan | AFP | The new US ambassador to Japan on Thursday reassured the country of an “ironclad” commitment to their security alliance, but urged Tokyo to step up its role in the pact, amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s missile threats.

Tokyo remains on alert against potential military provocations by Pyongyang after North Korea threatened to fire missiles towards the Pacific island of Guam, US territory, which would have flown over Japan.

Bill Hagerty, appointed by President Donald Trump, arrived at Narita airport near Tokyo to take up his post and said he envisions Japan expanding its activities in its decades-long defence relationship with the US.

“I… expect to see further involvement of Japan, and further responsibility and authority of Japan in their role as part of this important alliance,” Hagerty said, though did not elaborate.

The United States, which stations tens of thousands of troops in the country, has long encouraged Japan to take on more defence responsibility even though the country is militarily constrained by a US-written constitution imposed after the end of World War II.

In 2015 nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed contentious security bills through parliament that expand what Japan can do to help its ally, such as coming to the aid of US troops under attack.

The legislation was controversial given the still strong pacifist leanings of many Japanese and resulted in rare large-scale street protests in front of the parliament building and Abe’s office.

Trump stoked concerns in Japan during his run for the Oval Office by suggesting Tokyo was not paying its fair share for the huge US military presence, hinting that he might pull American troops and saying Japan should even consider having its own nuclear deterrent.

That struck a raw nerve for many Japanese, whose country suffered two US atomic bomb attacks at the closing days of the war in 1945.

Trump later walked back the comments and he and top officials including James Mattis, defence secretary, have consistently reiterated Washington’s commitment to Japan’s defence and praised Tokyo’s financial support for US troops.

Hagerty also made a point of driving home that message, reassuring Tokyo about his country’s commitment to its security amid tensions over North Korea’s weapons programmes.

“US ability to defend our allies like Japan is beyond question,” he said. “Our alliance with Japan is ironclad.”

Hagerty, founder of a private equity firm, spent three years in Japan working at a business consulting company.

He succeeds Caroline Kennedy, the sole surviving child of assassinated president John F. Kennedy. She was a popular envoy and was welcomed to Japan with movie-star fanfare.

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