Japan, U.S. defense chiefs vow closer ties over China's assertiveness

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his newly appointed U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin agreed Sunday to enhance their countries' alliance amid China's growing maritime assertiveness.
"We agreed to oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South and East China seas," Kishi told reporters after the two held phone talks.
Kishi said they reaffirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty requiring the United States to protect Japan against an armed attack covers the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
China has been aggressively pressing its territorial claims in the two seas, raising tensions with Tokyo and a number of other Asian countries.
Kishi and Austin agreed on the key role of the bilateral alliance in the region and the need to cooperate with various partners, including outside the region, to maintain and strengthen a free and open Indo-Pacific, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.
"We discussed the resolute and resilient nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance and joint efforts to maintain a free & open Indo-Pacific," Austin said on Twitter.
"My impression was that he seemed very interested in the security of Asia," Kishi said when asked by reporters about how he felt about Austin, who became defense secretary on Friday. "In terms of the relationship with Japan, I felt that he attached great importance to the Japan-U.S. alliance."
The new U.S. defense chief urged Japan to contribute more to providing security in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a statement by the U.S. Defense Department.
Prior to assuming the post, Austin said at a Senate committee hearing that he is looking forward to "refurbishing" U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.
Calling China a "pacing" or leading challenge for the Defense Department, Austin has vowed to develop capabilities and plans to maintain a competitive edge as Beijing builds up its military.
Japan and the U.S. also agreed to work toward the goal of getting North Korea to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," Kishi said.
They confirmed their countries' determination to prevent North Korea from evading sanctions through such means as illegal ship-to-ship transfers and direct shipments of goods banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Kishi said it is vital for Tokyo and Washington to reach an agreement at an early date on a replacement for the five-year cost-sharing agreement for the hosting of American troops expiring in March. The two sides are currently in negotiations.
He said Japan would take into consideration the increasing security threat in the region, as well as the country's severe fiscal conditions.
Austin also held phone talks with his British counterpart Ben Wallace and South Korean counterpart Suh Wook. The U.S. chief discussed with Wallace issues including "concerns from a rising China," while affirming with Suh the "ironclad" alliance between Washington and Seoul amid the North Korean nuclear threat, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

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