The foreign ministers of India, Japan, the United States and Australia pledged Friday to address maritime challenges in the South and East China seas, in a display of solidarity against Beijing's military assertiveness in the region.

The four Indo-Pacific democracies, collectively known as the Quad, also voiced their concern about "the militarization of disputed features" and "the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia" in the area, according to a joint statement issued after their gathering in New Delhi.

The meeting came amid the Communist-led government increasing its military presence in disputed areas in the South China Sea and repeatedly intruding into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, in the East China Sea.

(From L) Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pose for photos ahead of talks in New Delhi on March 3, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Foreign Ministry)(Kyodo)

The top diplomats also spoke on Russia's war in Ukraine, which entered its second year last week, saying the use or threat of nuclear weapons is "inadmissible." But they fell short of condemning Russia, possibly reflecting India's amicable ties with Moscow.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong attended the talks, the first since they met in September in New York.

The participants will support the "peaceful settlement of disputes" in the Indo-Pacific region and oppose "any unilateral attempt to change the status quo," the statement said.

The gathering, the first hosted by non-U.S. ally India since the Quad foreign ministerial session was launched in 2019 in New York, paved the way for an upcoming summit, reportedly being arranged in Sydney in late May or early June.

The four ministers renewed their commitment to the realization of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" which is "inclusive and resilient." The vision has been mainly advocated by Tokyo and Washington in a veiled counter to Beijing's increasing clout in the region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning criticized the Quad meeting at a press conference Friday, saying states should not form "exclusive and closed circles."

"We think countries should focus more on things that contribute to enhancing security and mutual trust, as well as maintaining regional peace and stability," she said.

As for the Russian invasion, the ministers "continued to discuss" their responses to the situation and "underscored the need for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine in accordance with international law," the statement said.

The Group of Seven industrialized countries, including Japan and the United States, alongside other like-minded democratic nations such as Australia, have been strengthening economic sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine, a former member of the now-collapsed Soviet Union. Japan holds the G-7 presidency in 2023.

India, which is traditionally friendly with Russia and highly dependent on it for military and energy supplies, has refrained from implementing punitive measures against Moscow.

The Quad foreign ministers, meanwhile, condemned North Korea for continuing to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. Pyongyang fired an ICBM last month.

The ministers also vowed to make further efforts to prevent the "proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies related to North Korea."

Among other fields, the group discussed plans to further cooperate on building more resilient infrastructure, enhancing the clean energy transition, and creating more transparent and fair lending and financing practices, as well as working together on cybersecurity and disaster relief activities, according to the statement.

In the Indian capital, Blinken and Wong took part in a foreign ministerial meeting of the Group of 20 economies, held for two days from Wednesday, while Hayashi skipped the gathering to join a parliamentary session in Japan.

Later Friday, Hayashi and Blinken held a bilateral meeting and stressed the importance of deterring third parties from providing Russia with military aid, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

The United States has alleged that China has been considering supplying weapons to Moscow for the Ukraine war. Beijing has strongly denied the claim.

The two ministers agreed that they should gain more support from countries considered part of the "Global South," or developing nations in areas such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, which have sought to avoid taking sides over the Ukraine crisis.

Hayashi also held bilateral talks with Jaishankar, confirming that Tokyo and New Delhi will closely cooperate on shared priorities as the chairs of the G-7 and the G-20 this year, respectively, the Japanese ministry said.

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