Defense chiefs from Japan, the United States and South Korea agreed in Singapore on Saturday to resume joint drills to deal with North Korea's ballistic missiles following its repeated launches since the start of this year.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong Sup, in a statement issued after their talks, also highlighted the importance of "peace and stability" in the Taiwan Strait, across which China has been exerting military pressure.
It was the first time for Taiwan -- the self-ruled democratic island viewed by Beijing as its own territory to be reunited by force, if necessary -- to be referred to in a joint statement following defense ministerial talks among the three nations, the Japanese Defense Ministry said.
To address North Korea's firing of missiles, the three nations pledged to carry out "trilateral missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises" for the first time since December 2017, as well as to take further joint actions to deal with Pyongyang's "repeated unlawful ballistic missile launches."
North Korea has conducted 16 rounds of ballistic missile tests since the beginning of this year, with the latest one last Sunday when it fired eight missiles from various parts of the country.
It is believed to be the largest number of ballistic missiles launched in a single day by the North, possibly showing that it has been developing the capability of carrying out "saturation attacks," in which multiple missiles are fired quickly to make it hard to intercept them.
"Dealing collectively with (North Korea's threats) is becoming more important than ever," Kishi told reporters after the talks.
Washington and its allies Tokyo and Seoul are also bracing for a new nuclear test by North Korea -- which would be the country's seventh and the first since September 2017 if conducted -- at its Punggye-ri test site in the northeast.
In addition to the North Korean threats, the change of government in Seoul has given fresh momentum for Japan-South Korea ties to improve.
Bilateral ties sank to their lowest level in decades under Moon Jae In, the predecessor of new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, over a host of issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In a veiled criticism of Beijing's growing assertiveness in the region, the statement said the officials aired "strong opposition to any unilateral actions that seek to alter the status quo and increase tensions" in the Indo-Pacific, and shared concerns on activities "inconsistent with the international rules-based order."
They "reaffirmed that all disputes should be resolved in a peaceful manner in accordance with the principles of international law," it added.
"At a time when the military balance over Taiwan is beginning to lose equilibrium, peace and stability of (the Taiwan Strait) is very important not only for the region but also for the international community, so we need to monitor it closely," Kishi said.
Held on the fringes of the annual Asia Security Summit, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the meeting was the first trilateral gathering since Yoon became South Korea's president on May 10 and Lee was named his defense chief.
Defense chiefs of the three countries last held in-person talks in November 2019.
Saturday's statement also stressed the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and South Korea, including extended deterrence "backed by the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear," a reference apparently taking account of China's military buildup and Russia's nuclear saber-rattling following its invasion of Ukraine.
Later in the day, Kishi and Austin held another trilateral meeting with their Australian counterpart Richard Marles, who became defense chief following the inauguration of Anthony Albanese as Australia's new prime minister late last month.
The three ministers rapped China by name for its "unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea" in a statement released after their talks, and they referred to the Taiwan issue as they called for "the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues."
In a bilateral meeting, Austin agreed with Lee to expand the scale of joint military exercises to maintain deterrence against North Korea, South Korea's Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Austin also made clear Washington's "ironclad" commitment to defend South Korea and reaffirmed with Lee that trilateral cooperation involving Japan "sends a strong deterrent signal to the region," according to the Pentagon.
Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed during their first summit talks in Seoul last month to "initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around" the Korean Peninsula, according to their joint statement released afterward.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual event that brings together defense officials from dozens of countries, had been canceled for the last two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.