US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called for deeper economic and security ties with Japan, as he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin seek to use their first trip abroad to strengthen Asian alliances in the face of China's assertiveness.
Their visit to Tokyo and 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.
Issues on the agenda range from freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and semiconductor supply-chain security, to North Korean nuclear issue and the military coup in Myanmar.
"We really come to reaffirm the fact that the alliance is as we'd like to say the cornerstone of our peace, security and prosperity," Blinken said in remarks to US embassy staff in Tokyo.
"The economic relationship between the United States and Japan is, as you know very well, one of the strongest in the world," Blinken told a group of Japanese business leaders.
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.
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.
At the opening of the bilateral meeting with the Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Blinken said he wanted to work with Japan and allies on the denuclearisation of North Korea.
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.
In his remarks to Tokyo-based US diplomats Blinken said the summer Games "involve planning for several different scenarios," and added that "whenever and however, Team USA ends up competing, it will be because of you."
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 officials will leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday and hold talks with counterparts in the South Korean capital until Thursday.
From there, Austin will fly to India while Blinken will fly to Alaska, where he will be joined by the national security adviser Jake Sullivan for meetings with Chinese counterparts.