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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday expressed “strong opposition” to unilateral attempts to change the maritime status quo, the Japanese government said, alluding to Beijing’s assertiveness in regional waters.

Their first in-person summit took place in Washington ahead of a leaders’ meeting of the Quad group, which also involves the United States and Australia. The group is seen as a counterweight to China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific region.

During the 45-minute talks, Suga hailed Modi as “an important partner” toward realizing a “free and open” Indo-Pacific and affirmed the importance of maritime security.

They also agreed to closely work bilaterally as well as with the Quad members to build a rules-based international order, according to a press release by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

In that context, the two leaders “shared their strong opposition against economic coercion and unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China seas,” the ministry said in a press release.

The announcement appeared to suggest that the two leaders are getting more aligned in facing the challenges posed by Beijing.

In their phone talks in April, the ministry only mentioned that Suga “expressed serious concerns about China’s continued and strengthened unilateral attempts to change the status quo” in the East and South China seas, without elaborating on Modi’s response.

Beijing in recent years has become more assertive regarding its claim to the Senkaku Islands, a group of Japan-administered islets in the East China Sea that are called Diaoyu by Beijing. It has also militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea despite a 2016 international ruling against its claims in the waters.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (left) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) prior to their talks in Washington on Thursday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (left) greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) prior to their talks in Washington on Thursday. | KYODO

Suga also conveyed to Modi that he strongly condemns North Korea’s recent test-firing of ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, calling it a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. He also called for India to cooperate in finding a solution to the issue of Pyongyang’s past abduction of Japanese nationals.

The two also reaffirmed the progress of a high-speed rail project in India using Japan’s shinkansen technology, the ministry said.

Suga is traveling to the United States, although he will be stepping down imminently after just one year in office amid mounting criticism over his pandemic response.

He has decided not to seek re-election as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when it holds its presidential election next week, meaning the party will choose his successor as prime minister.

Modi congratulated Suga on his “success” in hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics amid the pandemic, and Suga thanked him for the sentiment, the Japanese ministry said.

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