The top foreign and defense officials of Japan and the United States agreed Wednesday that China's growing power poses the "greatest strategic challenge" in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, vowing to reinforce deterrence as well as expand the scope of their security treaty into space.
In the face of serious security threats, also from North Korea and Russia, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada along with their U.S. counterparts Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin agreed to modernize and optimize the countries' alliance at a so-called two-plus-two meeting in Washington.
The bilateral meeting, last held in January 2022, took place just weeks after Japan endorsed new security and defense strategy documents putting Tokyo on a path to acquiring "counterstrike" capabilities, or the ability to hit enemy bases should the need arise, with the potential purchase of hundreds of U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles.
"The ministers concurred that China's foreign policy seeks to reshape the international order to its benefit and to employ China's growing political, economic, military and technological power to that end," a joint statement said. "This behavior is of serious concern to the alliance and the entire international community."
With the Japanese and U.S. forces seeking to enhance their interoperability, the foreign and defense chiefs said they will deepen cooperation toward the "effective employment" of Japan's long-range strike capabilities and promote joint research and development of cutting-edge defense equipment.
Such endeavors will include the start of technological research on advanced materials, in response to China's progress in the development of hypersonic weapons.
"We heartily welcome the new strategies, especially because there is, as we've all said, a remarkable convergence between our strategies and Japan's," Blinken said at a joint press conference.
Under Japan's updated strategies, which also reflect concern over Russia's war in Ukraine and its implications for Taiwan, Japan vowed to substantially raise its defense spending, setting a target of doubling the budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal 2027.
The approval of the documents in mid-December marked a further step away from Japan's exclusively self-defense-oriented posture since the end of World War II. The move caused controversy in the country but has been welcomed by U.S. officials.
"Japan's commitments to substantially increase its defense spending and to invest in defense institutions and infrastructure and capabilities will accelerate our alliance's efforts," Austin said.
In an attempt to bolster deterrence and deal with new security challenges, they agreed that attacks to, from and within space could invoke Article 5 of their security treaty, which obliges the United States to defend Japan.
As part of the ongoing realignment of U.S. military forces in the region, the statement touched on a plan to reorganize the 12th Marine Regiment in Okinawa, near Taiwan, into a littoral regiment by 2025.
The envisaged 12th Marine Littoral Regiment will be designed to have improved response and mobile capabilities as China's actions around remote southwestern Japan islands and Taiwan have increased the risks of conflict.
But Austin played down the possibility of an imminent invasion by China of the self-ruled island, which Beijing sees as a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary.
"What we're seeing recently is some very provocative behavior and on a part of China's forces, and their attempt to re-establish a new normal," he said.
While noting that there have been increased aerial and surface vessel activities around Taiwan, he said "whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent, you know, I seriously doubt that."
The Japanese foreign minister said the four confirmed the countries' basic positions on Taiwan remain unchanged and "the importance of maintaining peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait, which is an essential element for the safety and prosperity of the international community."
Hayashi, however, also said they reaffirmed there has not been any change to their policies to "strengthen communication with China" including on issues concerning security, or regarding Russia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned against Japan and the United States stepping up defense cooperation, saying at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday they "should not target the interests of third parties and should not undermine peace and stability in the region."
Wang Junsheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Chinese media that the deepening Japan-U.S. alliance will intensify the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region and will make settling issues more difficult.
"For regional peace, dialogue and cooperation, rather than military power, should be strengthened," he said.
The two-plus-two talks, officially called the Security Consultative Committee, came a day ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's first visit to the U.S. capital since taking office in October 2021.
Kishida's five-country trip, which started Monday and is aimed at marshaling support for Japan's presidency of the Group of Seven major democratic economies, will wrap up with a meeting Friday with President Joe Biden.
After visiting France, Italy, Britain and Canada, Kishida is expected to discuss similar issues with Biden at the White House and highlight the strength of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
Just after the high-level security talks, Hayashi held a separate meeting with Blinken and both agreed to work closely for the success of the G-7 summit to be held in Hiroshima in May and take the lead in developing a rules-based, free and open international order, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
The State Department, meanwhile, said they affirmed that the two countries will give unwavering support to Ukraine and discussed next steps for extending assistance to its energy sector.