Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi confirmed Sunday in his first talks with new U.S. defense chief Lloyd Austin that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea fall under the scope of the two allies’ security treaty.

Kishi spoke by phone with Austin, who became the first Black U.S. defense chief after being confirmed to his post Friday, with the pair also pledging to further bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance and maintain and strengthen a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” according to the Defense Ministry.

The teleconference was the first ministerial-level talks between Japan and the United States since President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.

Austin “affirmed that the Senkaku Islands are covered by Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and that the United States remains opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Article 5 states that the U.S. will defend territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack.

China, which also claims the Senkakus and calls them the Diaoyu, has repeatedly sent government vessels near the islands in what some observers say is a campaign to test, normalize and slowly erode Japan’s response to the incursions.

“Both ministers oppose attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the East and South China seas … and pledged to maintain a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law, including freedom of navigation and flight,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Kishi called Austin’s remarks “very encouraging” and said he would aim to build a relationship of trust while further strengthening deterrence.

“I felt that Defense Secretary Austin has a strong interest in the security environment in Asia and attaches importance to the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Kishi said.

Newly confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signaled he would like to visit Japan
Newly confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signaled he would like to visit Japan “as soon as possible,” the Japanese Defense Ministry said Sunday. | REUTERS

Austin’s reaffirmation of Article 5 comes after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga received a similar reassurance in November from Biden, president-elect at the time, that the Senkakus were covered under the treaty.

In a move that could complicate attempts to repair Sino-Japanese ties, Beijing on Friday passed a bill that allows its coast guard more freedom to use weapons on foreign ships involved in illegal activities in waters it claims, state-run media reported, heightening the chance of a miscalculation.

Tokyo has been working to maintain balance between Beijing, a top economic partner, and the U.S., its closest security ally, as Sino-American ties plunge to fresh lows over matters including trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In a sign that Japan and the U.S. were looking to encourage more countries to join the regional security fold, the two ministers also agreed that their allies would play a central role in “strengthening cooperation with various partners both inside and outside the region” in order to maintain and strengthen a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Tokyo, which has been watching closely how the Biden administration approaches Asia and China policy, was also likely to be encouraged by Austin’s apparent embrace of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy after the talks.

“Had a great first call with Defense Minister @KishiNobuo. We discussed the resolute and resilient nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance & joint efforts to maintain a free & open Indo-Pacific. Kishi-san, I look forward to working with you,” Austin wrote on Twitter.

The two also said they would aim for a “prompt agreement” in ongoing negotiations over the costs of stationing U.S. forces in Japan, while Austin signaled he would like to visit Japan “as soon as possible,” the Defense Ministry said.

On the North Korean nuclear issue, the ministry said that Tokyo and Washington would continue to work together toward the goal of the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of all of Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles “of all ranges.”

The Biden administration is currently conducting a standard policy review of its approach to nuclear-armed North Korea. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the review would be conducted “in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies.”

Japan has maintained that a hard-line stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile testing must be maintained, but top Asia officials in the Biden administration have signaled an openness to a step-by-step phased approach.

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