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Japan, US to deepen ties to deter status quo change in Indo-Pacific

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, second from right, and Defense Minister of Japan Nobuo Kishi, left, meet at the Pentagon on May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- The defense chiefs of Japan and the United States on Wednesday agreed to align the two countries' security strategies and strengthen cooperation to deter any attempt to change the status quo by force in the Indo-Pacific amid China's growing assertiveness.

    The meeting in the Pentagon took place as Japan plans to update its National Security Strategy by the end of this year, with Russia's war against Ukraine generating a fresh drive in Tokyo toward beefing up its defense and deterrence capabilities.

    At the outset of the talks, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Russia's attack on its neighbor is "a serious challenge to the international order" and that "such unilateral change to the status quo by force is a concern in the Indo-Pacific region as well."

    U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia's aggression has implications "far beyond Europe" because of the challenge it represents to the rules-based order.

    China's behavior, meanwhile, threatens to undermine the "common norms, values and institutions that underpin that order," he said, in a possible warning over its assertive territorial claims in neighboring waters and pressuring of Taiwan.

    Austin also reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan, including extended deterrence backed by the "full range" of U.S. nuclear and conventional defense capabilities, apparently with China's military buildup and Russia's nuclear saber-rattling following its invasion of Ukraine in mind.

    According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, Kishi conveyed Japan's "strong resolve" to fundamentally boost its defense capabilities, and Austin welcomed the move.

    Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has recently proposed a substantial increase in defense spending, possibly to an amount on a par with 2 percent of gross domestic product, up from the current 1 percent, and the development of an ability to attack missile-launching sites in an enemy's territory.

    Such proposals, if included in the Japanese government policy, would mark a major shift in the country's exclusively defense-oriented policy under the post-World War II pacifist Constitution, and also affect the shape of the decades-old Japan-U.S. security alliance.

    "The two ministers confirmed they would align the two countries' strategies through close consultations," the Japanese ministry said in a press release.

    During the talks, Kishi and Austin underscored the importance of peace and stability over the situation surrounding Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

    Russia's invasion of its neighbor has prompted concern over whether Taiwan could be the "next Ukraine," with the island seen as a potential military flashpoint that could draw the United States into conflict with China.

    A Taiwan contingency could also pose serious security challenges for Japan, a key U.S. ally that is geographically in close proximity to the self-ruled democratic island. Japan has also seen repeated incursions into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

    Austin reaffirmed that the Senkakus, called Diaoyu by China, fall within the scope of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, meaning Washington would come to Tokyo's aid in the event of an armed attack against the uninhabited islets.

    On North Korea, which has been repeating ballistic missile tests, the defense chiefs agreed that such provocative acts are unacceptable and that they will closely cooperate bilaterally, as well as trilaterally with South Korea, to address the threats.

    In March, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, raising concerns over its ongoing development of nuclear-capable ICBMs that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland. It also fired a missile on Wednesday, as Seoul prepares to inaugurate its first conservative government in five years next week.

    Kishi's visit to the United States is his first since assuming the defense portfolio in September 2020. The last time he met Austin in person was in March 2021, when the U.S. defense and foreign secretaries traveled to Japan for bilateral security talks.

    In a virtual meeting of the Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense chiefs in January this year, they shared their concerns about China's moves to undermine the rules-based international order and vowed to "deter and if necessary, respond" to what they view as destabilizing activities in the region.

    Kishi and Austin agreed to "swiftly" flesh out ways to beef up the alliance's deterrence and response capabilities, as agreed in January, the Japanese Defense Ministry said.

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