US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin are in Japan and issues on agenda range from solidifying Asian alliances against China to North Korean nuclear issue and a military coup in Myanmar.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo, Japan, on March 16, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo, Japan, on March 16, 2021. (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for deeper economic ties with Japan, as he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin seek to use their first trip abroad to solidify Asian alliances as a bulwark against China's assertiveness.

Their visit to Tokyo on Tuesday and later Seoul is the first overseas outing by top cabinet members of President Joe Biden's team and follows a virtual summit last week of the leaders the United States, Japan, Australia and India – the 'Quad' alliance.

"The economic relationship between the United States and Japan is, as you know very well, one of the strongest in the world," Blinken said in remarks to a group of business leaders in Tokyo on Tuesday. 

He said the pandemic had exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains for critical products, including medical equipment, supplies, semiconductors.

The countries needed to work together to build secure and resilient supply chains for the future, he said.

Blinken also said US will continue to work with allies towards the denuclearisation of North Korea.

Blinken made the remarks at a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo.

He said democratic values were under threat in places like Myanmar and China.

READ MORE: Does the Quad alliance pose a serious threat to China?

What's on agenda?

Issues on the agenda range from freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and semiconductor supply-chain security to the North Korean nuclear issue and a military coup in Myanmar, experts say.

North Korea is likely to be in sharp focus after the White House said Pyongyang had so far rebuffed efforts from the United States to engage in dialogue. 

North Korea warned the new US administration against "causing a stink" if it wants peace, North Korean state media reported on Tuesday.

The trip also sends an "important signal of resolve to work with allies" at a time when the region faces mounting pressure from China and continued threat from North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, Sung Kim, the Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters during a briefing ahead of the visit.

READ MORE: Biden says free Indo-Pacific 'essential' as US, allies launch vaccine plan

'Powerful signal' about US priorities

The Quad summit pledged to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, a major priority for Tokyo, and cooperate on maritime, cyber and economic security in the face of challenges from Beijing.

"The most important thing that's going to happen on this trip is that Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin are making Japan and Korea (and India for Secretary Austin) the first steps on their first trip to the region," said Brian Harding, a Southeast Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace.

"So, by touching down in Tokyo, in a lot of ways, it'll already be successful, and sends an incredibly powerful signal about the priorities of this administration."

READ MORE: Biden to meet allies in first 'Quad' summit

Japan-US alliance

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said at the start of his bilateral meeting with Austin that his visit sent a strong message "about the US commitment to this region and the robustness of the Japan-US alliance."

Kishi said the two would discuss China's movements in the East and South China Seas and "specific initiatives that Japan and US should work on to enhance their capabilities to deter and respond."

In response, Austin said the alliance was "the cornerstone in addressing today's and tomorrow's challenges as we work together to uphold the Free and Open Indo-Pacific."

The concept of Free and Open Indo-Pacific is a major priority for Tokyo as it seeks to curb China's activity in the East and South China Seas.

Following bilateral meetings, both Austin and Blinken were due to meet with their counterparts for a joint session of "2+2" talks and were expected to address some other items raised during 'Quad' such as maritime, cyber and economic security.

Analysts also expect Tokyo to seek US support for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and follow-up talks on other subjects that figured at the Quad summit, such as the commitment to boost Covid-19 vaccine supplies in Asia and climate change.

The secretaries are expected to make a courtesy call on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is set to visit the White House as the first foreign leader to meet Biden in April.

Both US officials will leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday and hold talks with counterparts in the South Korean capital until Thursday.

Source: Reuters