US calls for deeper Japan ties as China, N Korea cast shadow

Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlights US-Japan economic ties as he stresses vulnerabilities in global supply chains amid pandemic.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called for deeper economic ties with Japan, as he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to use their first trip abroad to buttress Asian alliances as a bulwark against China’s assertiveness.

Their visit to Tokyo and Seoul is the first overseas trip by senior officials from President Joe Biden’s administration and follows a virtual summit last week of the leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and India – the so-called Quad alliance.

Issues on the agenda range from freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas to North Korea, the military coup in Myanmar and the security of semiconductor supply chains.

“The economic relationship between the United States and Japan is, as you know very well, one of the strongest in the world,” Blinken said in remarks to a group of business leaders in Tokyo on Tuesday.

He said the pandemic had exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains for critical products, including medical equipment, supplies, semiconductors.

The countries needed to work together to build secure and resilient supply chains for the future, he said.

North Korea is likely to be in sharp focus after the White House said Pyongyang had so far rebuffed efforts from the United States to engage in dialogue.

North Korea warned the new US administration against “causing a stink” if it wants peace, North Korean state media reported on Tuesday as Blinken and Austin arrived in Japan.

Quad alliance

The trip sends an “important signal of resolve to work with allies” at a time when the region faces mounting pressure from China and a continued threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, Sung Kim, the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters during a briefing ahead of the visit.

The Quad summit pledged to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, a chief priority for Tokyo and to cooperate on maritime, cybersecurity and economic safeguards in the face of challenges from Beijing.

Analysts also expect Japan to seek US support for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and follow-up talks on other subjects that figured at the Quad summit, such as the commitment to boost COVID-19 vaccine supplies in Asia and climate change.

The two men are also scheduled 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.

Blinken and Austin will meet Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi in what is known as 2-plus-2 talks.

According to Japan’s NHK broadcaster, China is expected to be high on the agenda at the meeting.

The two sides are likely to share their concerns about China’s growing maritime reach, as well as its new coastguard law, which authorises its coastguard to use weapons in waters Beijing considers to be under its jurisdiction.

The US and Japanese officials are also expected to affirm that Article Five of the Japan-US Security Treaty applies to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China.

The article obliges the US to defend territories under Japan’s administrative control.

Both officials are set to leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday and hold talks with their counterparts in the South Korean capital until Thursday.

They will then head back to the US where they will meet top Chinese diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska.

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