• Kyodo

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Japanese and British foreign and defense ministers agreed Wednesday to strengthen security ties and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region as China becomes increasingly assertive in the East and South China seas.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said after a videoconference that Japan welcomes Britain's planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier strike group centered on the Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's largest warship, to the west Pacific later this year.

In the so-called two-plus-two meeting, Japan also agreed with Britain to coordinate joint exercises involving the strike group with its Self-Defense Forces, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Referring to China's assertiveness in the East and South China seas, Motegi said on a Facebook post he and the British ministers "shared grave concerns" over the situation and "agreed to strongly oppose unilateral attempts to change the status quo using force, and on the importance of free and open maritime order based on the rule of law."

Speaking at the outset of the meeting, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace characterized the carrier group as "demonstrating a mixture of our sovereign capability but also our desire to collaborate even further."

His Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, said the dispatch will "not only strengthen bilateral defense cooperation but help promote a free and open Indo-Pacific."

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also took part in the meeting, the fourth of its kind and convened for the first time since 2017.

Japan has been angered by repeated intrusions into its territorial waters around the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands by Chinese vessels. The islands in the East China Sea are claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu.

China also put into force new controversial legislation Monday that allows its coast guard to use weapons in its claimed waters. Motegi said he shared with the British ministers Japan's "strong concerns" regarding China's coast guard law.

In the South China Sea, China has proceeded with large-scale and rapid land reclamation and constructed military facilities to press territorial rights to the waters despite conflicting claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Japan and Britain also shared "serious concerns" about China's crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and human rights issues related to Beijing's treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, Motegi said.

Aside from security issues, the ministers agreed to promote fair access to coronavirus vaccines, he said.

Britain, after completing its departure from the European Union, has said it looks to raise its profile as a global power, including tilting to the Indo-Pacific region for its economic potential and to safeguard freedom of navigation as a maritime nation.

Motegi welcomed Britain's move Monday as the first non-Pacific country to formally request to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal grouping 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Australia, Canada and Japan, but not China.

The bilateral two-plus-two meeting was previously held in December 2017 in London. The two sides initially aimed to hold it in April 2019 but had to postpone it as London dealt with Brexit and, later, the novel coronavirus.

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