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US top diplomat and defense chief plan March visit to Japan

TOKYO — Washington and Tokyo have begun preparations for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to visit Japan as early as mid-March to meet their Japanese counterparts.

Blinken and Austin will be the first U.S. cabinet members to travel to Japan under the administration of President Joe Biden. They might hold a “two-plus-two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers in addition to individual talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.

Prior to this, senior diplomatic and defense officials from the two countries held security discussions via video conference Thursday. The two sides exchanged views on the Indo-Pacific security environment and bilateral defense cooperation. 

The meetings in March likely will center on China’s military expansion and the importance of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance as a deterrent force in the region.

The two sides are expected to discuss recent incursions by Chinese coast guard vessels into waters near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu, as well as a new law that upgraded China’s coast guard into a quasi-military force.

Other potential topics include Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, political developments in Hong Kong and human rights violations against China’s Uyghur minority.

Blinken in a policy speech on Wednesday called the U.S. relationship with China his country’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”

Japanese and U.S. officials also will discuss greater cooperation on denuclearizing North Korea and on space and cyber defense.

In terms of cost-sharing for the U.S. military based in Japan, the countries recently agreed to extend their current arrangement by a year from the end of March. The two sides still need to negotiate a full-fledged deal that would cover fiscal 2022 and beyond.

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