To begin, the most obvious point is that Washington is pleased that Japan is standing up to China, not rolling over in the face of Chinese demands and aggressiveness. Japan, much like the Philippines and Vietnam, has protested against China’s maritime claims and encroachments in the South and East China Seas. But more than that, Japan’s changes in foreign and defense policy serve to balance against Chinese power and actions, which is good news to America. The U.S. doesn’t have to worry about providing all of the military muscle to combat Chinese advances in the region; it has a committed partner in Japan, one that’s willing and increasingly capable of blocking undesirable Chinese moves, including China's domination of Asia.
All of this has led to better cooperation with the U.S. Of course, because of concerns about China, America is going to try to deepen ties with its Asian allies, such as Japan, regardless of their military and defense capabilities and posture. That said, I get the sense that Team Obama wants to reward Japan for its recent assertiveness and confidence in its foreign and defense policy. Put simply, if Japan is willing to enhance its military capabilities, so as to enhance its self-defense, keep China in its place, and protect the U.S.-infused liberal order in Asia, then Washington would like to strengthen and expand its security partnership with Tokyo.
As an example, this past week Defense Chief Chuck Hegel and Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Japan and sealed a significant security agreement, which “includes provisions for a new missile defense system in Japan, stations American surveillance drones at Japanese air bases, and provides for coordination on cyber threats.”
Moreover, keep in mind that a host of countries throughout Asia--in East Asia and Asia-Pacific and South Asia, especially--are also pleased with the changes in Japan’s foreign and defense policy. As pointed out by Ted Galen Carpenter:
Several East Asian nations now seem to view Japan as an important strategic counterweight to China. When asked how his government would view a rearmed, non-pacifist Japan, Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times “We would welcome that very much.” He added, “We are looking for balancing factors in the region, and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” And such opinions are being put into action. In January 2013, Tokyo and Manila agreed to enhance their cooperation on maritime security. Ties are also growing between Japan and Singapore, as well as between Japan and Australia on such matters. Worries about the need to balance China’s growing power is evident as well in the recent summit between Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which cooperation even on the highly sensitive issue of nuclear technology was high on the agenda.
Certainly, not all countries in Asia are on board with the shifts in Japan’s foreign and defense policy, and Japan is well aware of this. Indeed, what Japan is trying to do is to tiptoe a fine line by bolstering its self-defense capacity while also reducing the worry and concern that local countries might have with a more muscular Japanese foreign and defense policy. In short, Japan seeks to signal that it's a defensively, rather than offensively, motivated state, one that poses no harm to its neighbors.
Toward that end, Shinzo Abe has taken steps to assuage Japan’s wary neighbors and lower the overall temperature in the region: "He has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and employing provocative rhetoric towards his neighbors, even calling Vice Premier Taro Aso to task after he made an appalling comment on what Japan can learn from Nazi Germany. Most importantly, he maintains Japan's official apologies on the war and comfort women despite fears he would dilute these statements." Additionally, in the last two weeks, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has attempted to mollify concerns that the SDF might fight wars in distant lands if Japan loosens the restrictions on collective defense, saying "such a scenario isn't being entertained by current debate.
Japan has also tried to improve relations with China. Over the last few months, Abe has dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and special advisor Isao Iijima to Beijing to improve inter-state relations. Abe has also called for a leadership summit with Xi Jinping, and he even approached Xi on the sidelines of the latest G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, extending his hand for a greeting. The rub, of course, is that China will only talk to Japan if Tokyo admits the islands in the East China Sea are in dispute, something the Abe government is reluctant to do thus far.
Japan has also attempted to reinforce its longstanding image as a peaceful, cooperative country in the world. Japan has broached the idea of acting as a mediator between Iran and the U.S. Additionally, word is that the Abe administration has offered workers and aid to assist in the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. “Already, Tokyo has dispatched six staffers, some of whom are SDF members, to the OPCW, and the government is looking into whether it will be possible to send them into Syria to actually help in the removal effort. The report suggested that the SDF members were personnel who had previously worked at OPCW.”