Defense Minister Taro Kono’s weekend trip to Guam to meet his U.S. counterpart came as Japan faces a double-barreled challenge of a leadership transition amid the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s growing maritime assertiveness.

The visit came just a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the nation by announcing his intention to resign from his post after a record-setting term in office that saw him rebuild frayed ties with China while also bolstering the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Kono and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Saturday vowed to keep China in check in both the disputed South China Sea and the East China Sea, home to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing.

“(In the) South and East China seas, we confirmed that Japan and the United States will strongly oppose countries unilaterally changing the status quo by force,” Kono was quoted as saying in an online news conference after his meeting with Esper at the United States’ Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.

The comments were a not-so-oblique reference to Beijing, which has seen its relationship with Washington deteriorate in recent months over COVID-19 — what Trump has derisively referred to as the “China virus” — as well as trade, technology, supply chains and maritime assertiveness.

In the South China Sea, China on Wednesday fired what the Pentagon said were four ballistic missiles — including apparent anti-ship weapons — in what was widely interpreted as a warning to the United States. The U.S. has beefed up its presence in the waters, sending two aircraft carriers there in June and July and routinely sending spy planes near areas where China was conducting military exercises. The Self-Defense Forces have also joined the U.S. military for their own integrated drills on the doorstep of the strategic waterway.

Kono reportedly told Esper that Wednesday’s launch was destabilizing for the region after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, said Thursday that Tokyo views “issues surrounding the South China Sea” as “a matter of legitimate interest of the international community, including our country.”

The U.S. has asked Japan to take stronger action against Chinese maritime aggression and to join a coalition of “like-minded” nations targeting Beijing for alleged malfeasance in a number of areas such as tech and supply chains. Tokyo, however, has sought to balance its alliance with Washington with its deeply rooted economic ties to Beijing.

Although U.S. government has repeatedly said it will not take a position on the issue of sovereignty over the Senkakus, it recently shifted its stance on the South China Sea, declaring last month that Beijing’s expansive claims to offshore resources across most of the waterway are “completely unlawful.”

Jay Batongbacal, a professor at the University of the Philippines and expert on maritime law, said that Japan was likely to have welcomed this change because it is aligned with its interests in ensuring access through the South China Sea — home to crucial sea lanes for Japanese trade.

“It also has needed the U.S. to be the one to take this kind of express position first, which Japan can then follow up on, in order to avoid a direct reprisal from Beijing,” Batongbacal added.

Still, more pressing for Tokyo has been China’s moves near the Senkakus, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu.

At their talks, Kono said that he and Esper had reaffirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty covers the tiny, uninhabited islets. The article obligates the United States to help protect territory under Japanese administration in the event of an armed attack.

China passed a new and unsettling milestone earlier this month, sending government vessels to waters near the Senkakus for 111 straight days — the most since they were effectively nationalized in 2012 — in what Tokyo has labeled a “relentless” campaign to claim control over the disputed islets.

As Sino-U.S. ties continue to unravel and Japan prepares for a leadership change amid the pandemic, analysts believe China may see an opportunity to further test Japan’s resolve in the East China Sea and elsewhere

“China’s territorial needling has sharply raised the strategic temperature in the East China Sea around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands,” Robert Ward, Japan Chair at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in an analysis Friday.

Ward said China’s increased “territorial prodding” near Japan may also be seen as “strategic opportunism” by Beijing to gain an advantage at a moment of political weakness in Tokyo.

“Unsurprisingly, all this is fueling a profound rethink of Japan’s security policy,” he wrote.

One area where Japan is considering such a rethink is missile defense.

At Saturday’s meeting, Kono was quoted as agreeing with Esper to cooperate on missile defense after Japan decided in June to scrap plans to deploy the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore system.

As a means of offsetting the loss of that system, Japan earlier this month began full-fledged discussions on ways to counter ballistic missiles after receiving a proposal from a group of ruling party lawmakers urging it to consider acquiring the capability to defeat such projectiles even in the territory of an opponent. Japan is due to reveal a new policy on missile defense in September.

Information from Kyodo added.

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