• KYODO, Reuters

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Senior diplomats from Japan, the United States and South Korea affirmed Wednesday the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, where mainland China is increasing pressure on the self-ruled island, according to the U.S. State Department.

The three countries agreed to oppose to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea where the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are located, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said, in an apparent move to confirm their alliance to counter China’s growing military presence.

In their talks in Tokyo, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun also agreed to work closely to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the ministry said.

The meeting came as the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden sees trilateral cooperation as a key element in promoting security in Asia and keeping China in check.

“If there is any action that undermines international rules, we will jointly counter it,” Sherman said at a joint news conference following the first deputy-ministerial talks by the three nations since October 2017.

The three also agreed to use the trilateral framework to cope with global issues such as coronavirus response measures and climate change, the ministers said.

Regarding the denuclearization of North Korea, they agreed to work out ways for Washington to resume dialogue with Pyongyang in line with the Biden administration’s recent review of U.S. policy toward the reclusive state.

The three countries are sending a clear message with their coordination on policy toward North Korea, Sherman said, despite the recent friction between the two Asian allies.

“That close coordination sends a very critical message to North Korea in that we are together and shoulder-to-shoulder in our approach to this policy,” Sherman told reporters after meeting the vice foreign ministers.

The three-way talks were held in Tokyo despite frayed relations between Japan and South Korea, largely a result of recriminations by both sides stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

A new chapter of the historic dispute that blew up in 2019 hit trade between the neighbors and threatened to undermine their cooperation on security in the face of a common threat from North Korea and its nuclear and missile programs.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently decided not to visit the Tokyo Olympics, which open on Friday, for what would have been his first summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Mori said the trilateral cooperation with the United States was crucial for the denuclerization of North Korea.

“North Korea’s next move is unpredictable,” Mori said.

The United States and South Korea also expressed full support for Japan’s request to seek understanding and assistance in resolving past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, the Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.

North Korea has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since U.S. President Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, raising hopes for some sort of breakthrough. Little concrete progress came as Kim refused to give up his nuclear weapons but he did impose a freeze on testing them.

Choi described the North Korea nuclear issue as “a long game” that needed patience.

Sherman said the United States was “ready to engage with North Korea and they know that.”

“We hope they will respond positively, but as my colleagues have said, we must exercise some patience, perhaps not too much, but some,” Sherman said.

Sherman did not refer directly to the recent tension between Japan and South Korea but said the United States had “no greater friends” in the region than those two countries.

Senior diplomats from Japan and South Korea reiterated that their countries would continue dialogue to resolve outstanding issues.

Choi said South Korea was “deeply impressed” by Japan’s efforts to host the Olympics during the coronavirus pandemic.

Choi said he, Sherman and Mori had agreed to meet regularly.

They also agreed on the need to work closely with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) toward the realization of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative promoted by Japan and the United States.

The talks followed a Japan-U.S. bilateral meeting on Tuesday in which Mori and Sherman agreed to boost cooperation against China’s assertive behavior.

China lays claim to the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea. It has frequently sent its coast guard vessels near the islets, which it calls Diaoyu, including in Japan’s territorial waters, despite protests from Tokyo.

China also has overlapping claims with its neighbors in the South China Sea, and has raised concerns by militarizing outposts in disputed areas.

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