Japan and the United States joined forces Tuesday to criticize China’s “coercion and aggression” in Asia as senior ministers from both countries held their first in-person talks since President Joe Biden took office in January.
Aside from the sharp rhetoric aimed at Beijing, the meeting in Tokyo and a planned stop next in Seoul are as much an effort by the Biden administration to reassure worried allies in Asia after four years of occasionally confrontational dealings with the Trump administration.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after holding the so-called “two plus two” security talks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Japanese counterparts —Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi — said democracy and human rights in the region are being challenged and the United States will push with its partners for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Blinken said the Biden administration is committed to work with U.S. allies and those in the region as they face challenges from China and its ally North Korea, which is pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons program. “We will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way,” he said.
In a joint statement released after the talks, the ministers shared strong worry over Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, “unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea” and “unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo” over the Japan-controlled East China Sea islands that China also claims. The statement also stressed the importance of “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.
On the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad, Blinken and Austin also agreed with their Japanese counterparts to cooperate on 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.
On Tuesday, a day after the two U.S. officials arrived, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister warned the U.S. to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years. She also criticized the U.S. and South Korea for holding military exercises.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement was North Korea’s first comments directed at the Biden administration.
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.” Blinken also said that the United States and Japan reaffirmed the importance of their three-way partnership with South Korea, though the ministers did not publicly mention 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 during World War II. 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.
Austin referenced “China’s destabilizing actions” and said it was a “a pacing challenge” for his department. He said the allies need to develop operational capability to respond quickly to a security threat like China.
“We know that competing in today’s shifting global dynamics, can only be done through the spirit of teamwork and cooperation, which are the hallmarks of our alliance with Japan,” he said.