Japan, US to share China worry as ministers meet in Tokyo

(AP) — Defense and foreign ministers from the United States and Japan met Tuesday to discuss their shared worry over China’s growing territorial ambitions in the East and South China seas as the Biden administration tries to reassure key regional allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his opening remarks at the so-called “two plus two” security talks on Tuesday, joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, told their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, that the U.S. ministers are here to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance and make it stronger.

He also said the Biden administration is committed to work with the U.S. allies and those in the region and support their shared values of human rights and democracy as they face challenges from China and North Korea.

On Tuesday, just as the two U.S. officials arrived, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister criticized the United States and South Korea for holding military exercises and warned Washington against further provocations if it wants a “good night’s sleep for the next four years.”

Kim Yo Jong’s statement Tuesday was North Korea’s first comments directed at the new U.S. presidential administration.

President Joe Biden’s decision to send key ministers to Japan as their first overseas visit — rather than hosting Japanese officials in Washington — means a lot for Japan, which considers its alliance with the United States the cornerstone of its diplomatic and security policies.

Blinken, in his opening remarks at an earlier meeting with Motegi, said “it is no accident that we chose Japan for the first Cabinet level overseas travel” of the Biden administration, and that he and Austin are “here to reaffirm our commitment to the alliance and to build on it.”

He said the United States and its allies are working on together on climate change, cyber security and health security “in support of our shared values.”

“We believe in democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” but they are under threat in the region, “whether it’s Burma or China,” Blinken said. He said the United States will work with its allies to help achieve “a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Blinken also said that the United States and Japan are expected to reaffirm the importance of their three-way partnership with South Korea and may touch on the strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul over wartime compensation issues.

South Korea and Japan have been struggling to repair relations that sank in 2019 following South Korean court rulings that ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations for forced labor. Those rulings led to trade curbs by both countries and Seoul threatened to scrap a bilateral military intelligence-sharing agreement that was a major symbol of the countries’ three-way security cooperation in the region.

Since then, Japan and U.S. have changed leaders, leaving hope for improved relations.

Motegi, after the talks with Blinken, said the two ministers both oppose China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the regional seas and that they also shared strong concerns over Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. The two ministers also agreed on the importance of complete denuclearization of North Korea, he said.

Japan is in a delicate diplomatic situation because its economy, like those of other countries in the region, heavily depends on China.

But Tokyo considers China’s escalating maritime activity in the region a security threat. Beijing has built militarized manmade islands in the South China Sea and is pressing its claim to virtually all of the sea’s key fisheries and waterways. Japan is concerned about China’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea and its increased activity in the disputed area.

China has denied it is expansionist and said it is only defending its territorial rights.

On the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad, Blinken and Austin were expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the situation in Myanmar after its military coup.

Later Tuesday, the officials will talk with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is expected to visit Washington sometime in the first half of April to meet with Biden in person — becoming the first foreign leader to do so since Biden became president in January.