US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called for deeper economic and security ties with Japan, as he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin seek to use their first trip abroad to strengthen Asian alliances in the face of China's assertiveness.
Their visit to Tokyo and Seoul is the first overseas visit by top cabinet members of President Joe Biden's team and follows a virtual summit last week of the leaders the United States, Japan, Australia and India - the Quad alliance.
Beijing looms large over the meeting, with issues on the agenda ranging from freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and semiconductor supply-chain security, to the North Korean nuclear threat and the military coup in Myanmar.
'We really come to reaffirm the fact that the alliance is as we'd like to say the cornerstone of our peace, security and prosperity,' Blinken said in remarks to US embassy staff in Tokyo.
'The economic relationship between the United States and Japan is, as you know very well, one of the strongest in the world,' Blinken told a group of Japanese business leaders.
North Korea was also in sharp focus after the White House said Pyongyang had so far rebuffed efforts to engage in dialogue. North Korea warned the new U.S. administration against "causing a stink" if it wants peace, North Korean state media reported on Tuesday.
At the opening of a "2+2" meeting Blinken said he wanted to work with Japan and allies on the denuclearisation of North Korea. The "2+2" meeting was between Blinken, Austin and Japan's foreign and defence ministers.
Earlier in the day Blinken said Tokyo and Washington shared a commitment to democracy, human rights and rule of law and said they are 'under threat in many places, including in the region, whether it's in Burma or whether in different ways, China.'
After the Seoul leg, Blinken will fly to Alaska, where he will be joined by the national security adviser Jake Sullivan for their first in-person talks with Chinese counterparts.
DEFENCE TIES AND CHINA
Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said he and Austin had agreed that a law China passed in January allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels was a serious concern and had escalated tensions in the region.
China has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea and has sent its coast guard to chase away fishing vessels from other countries, sometimes resulting in their sinking.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said China-related issues took up the majority of his talks with Blinken and 'expressed strong opposition to China's unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.'
The talks were expected to address other items raised during the Quad summit, including the commitment to boost COVID-19 vaccine supplies in Asia and climate change.
Motegi said Blinken expressed support for the staging of Tokyo Olympics during their bilateral meeting.
But Blinken sounded non-committal in his remarks to Tokyo-based US diplomats, saying the summer Games 'involve planning for several different scenarios,' and adding that 'whenever and however, Team USA ends up competing, it will be because of you.'
The secretaries are expected to make a courtesy call on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is set to visit the White House as the first foreign leader to meet Biden in April.
Both officials will leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday and hold talks with counterparts in the South Korean capital until Thursday.