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US takes aim at China territorial claims as Biden vows to back Japan


Joe Biden has vowed to strengthen the US’s alliance with Japan to counter growing Chinese military activity in the volatile Asia-Pacific region, including a commitment to defend the Senkakus, a group of islands in the East China sea administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

The US president and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga agreed during a phone call that their countries’ security alliance was “the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Biden’s vow to strengthen security arrangements in the region contrasted with the approach taken by Donald Trump, who publicly mulled withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea, both key US allies.

Trump also complained that Tokyo and Seoul were not paying enough towards their own security and called on them to buy more US-made defence equipment.

“We managed to have substantial exchanges,” Suga said after his 30-minute call with Biden. “We agreed to strengthen our alliance firmly by having more phone calls like this.”

Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to provide “extended deterrence” to Japan, a reference to the US nuclear umbrella, the White House said in a statement.

They also agreed on the need for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, as speculation mounts over how Biden intends to engage with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, over his nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Japan is particularly concerned about frequent incursions by Chinese vessels into waters near the Senkaku islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in China.

Biden’s “unwavering commitment” to defending the Senkakus was expected, but has taken on extra significance, coming a week after Beijing passed legislation authorising coast guard vessels to use weapons against foreign ships deemed to be involved in illegal activities around the uninhabited island chain.

The two did not discuss the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, whose future is in doubt as the world continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, officials said.

Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, established a rapport with Trump during rounds of golf in Japan and the US, and was the first world leader to meet him after his 2016 election victory.

Suga said he hoped to “deepen my personal relationship with President Biden”, adding that he planned to visit Washington as soon as the coronavirus pandemic allowed.

Media reports in Japan said the two leaders had agreed to call each other Joe and Yoshi.

Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had earlier told the Philippine foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, that the US rejected China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea beyond what is permitted under international law.

Blinken said Washington stood with the Philippines and other south-east Asian countries resisting pressure from Beijing, which has laid claim to wide areas of the South China Sea.

“Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with south-east Asian claimants in the face of PRC [People’s Republic of China] pressure,” the state department said in a statement.

China claims almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also a major trade route. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

The US has accused China of taking advantage of the distraction created by the coronavirus pandemic to advance its presence in the South China Sea.

Blinken, who joined Biden’s administration this week, “underscored that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law”, the statement said.

US-China relations deteriorated under Trump over a host of issues, including trade, the pandemic, Beijing’s crackdown on the Hong Kong democracy movement and its persecution of Uighur Muslims.



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