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US Indo-Pacific commander visits Japan in maiden overseas trip

Aquilino discusses China, Taiwan and base realignment with leaders in Tokyo

Adm. John Aquilino, left, commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the start of their meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on June 1.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, met with Japan's top echelon on Tuesday as he made his first overseas trip since assuming the post at the end of April.

During his 15-minute meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the two men expressed their strong opposition to China's unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in the East China Sea.

Aquilino and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, during their meeting at the Defense Ministry. The admiral also sat down with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Gen. Koji Yamazaki, chief of the Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff.

The red carpet treatment for the new regional commander, including the visit to the prime minister's office, reflected the importance Tokyo places on the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Aquilino was accompanied by Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, in the meeting with Suga. The two sides discussed the importance of reducing the hosting burden on the people of Okinawa Prefecture through the realignment of U.S. Forces Japan, while maintaining the alliance's deterrence capabilities.

Suga expressed his desire to further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and jointly pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Aquilino called the alliance "the cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific," and said the U.S. remains "absolutely committed to working alongside Japan and other like-minded countries to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific where all nations can thrive and prosper."

"It was important that I visit Japan as part of my first overseas trip to listen and learn from our allies about their security concerns in the region," he said.

Suga and Aquilino also exchanged views on the latest developments in North Korea.

In the meeting with Motegi, the two sides reaffirmed that the realignment of U.S. Forces Japan will move steadily ahead. This includes the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a densely populated part of Okinawa to a less-crowded area in the prefecture -- the Henoko portion of the city of Nago -- and the transfer of some Marines to Guam.

Motegi said that for a stable stationing of American troops in Japan, the understanding and cooperation of the local community are crucial. He requested that U.S. military activity in Japan be conducted in a safe manner, conscious of the impact on the local communities, and that the Japanese side would like to cooperate closely with the U.S. to respond to any incidents or accidents smoothly.

Ahead of the meetings, Aquilino placed a wreath at a memorial to fallen troops.

A graduate of the elite Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as "Top Gun," Aquilino has piloted "the F-14 Tomcat, three different variants of the F-18 Hornet, the F-16 Falcon, and more," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said when introducing him as the new Indo-Pacific commander in April.

During his March 23 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Aquilino outlined the importance of the command.

"The Indo-Pacific is the most consequential region for America's future and remains the priority theater for the United States," he said. "Residing here are four of the five security challenges identified in the Department of Defense: China, Russia, North Korea and violent extremist organizations."

On the possibility of China taking action in the Taiwan Strait, Aquilino did not second his predecessor Adm. Philip Davidson's assessment that it could happen in the next six years. But he did say: "My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think," and the U.S. has to enhance its deterrence capabilities "in the near term, and with urgency."

Aquilino heads to South Korea next where he will meet with senior government officials to "reaffirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea," the Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.

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