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The new head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has made Tokyo his first destination after taking up his post, meeting with top Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in yet another signal of strengthening security ties amid concerns over Chinese military assertiveness.

Adm. John Aquilino, who was confirmed by the Senate on April 30, told Suga at the outset of their meeting that making Japan the first stop on his trip, which will also take him to South Korea, was “extremely important.”

Suga noted that during his recent visit to Washington, where he became the first leader to hold face-to-face talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, the two leaders were able to “build a trusted personal relationship” while also reconfirming a commitment to “further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

In what appeared to be a veiled reference to China’s ramped-up pressure on democratic Taiwan, Aquilino and Suga also agreed on the “importance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

In April, Suga and Biden highlighted “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” — marking the first time that Taiwan was mentioned in a U.S.-Japan leaders’ statement since 1969. Beijing views the self-ruled island as an inherent part of its territory, a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

During his confirmation hearings in March, Aquilino said taking control of Taiwan remains China’s “No. 1 priority,” adding that “this problem is much closer to us than most think.”

Aqulino’s predecessor, Adm. Philip Davidson, told an earlier hearing that China could be ready to take Taiwan by force within the next six years.

Top U.S. officials have said they expect Tokyo to work with Washington in bolstering deterrence to ensure peace across the Taiwan Strait amid China’s growing military pressure on Taipei. Japan is reportedly studying possible responses by the Self-Defense Forces in the event of a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Suga and Aquilino also agreed to continue to “strongly oppose China's unilateral attempts to change the status quo, including in the East China Sea,” the ministry added.

The East China Sea is home to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing, where they are known as the Diaoyu. China has repeatedly sent government ships near the uninhabited islets in recent years, including for more than 100 consecutive days this year.

The new Indo-Pacom chief also met individually with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and Gen. Koji Yamazaki, chief of the SDF’s Joint Staff, for talks that focused on a free and open Indo-Pacific, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.

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