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International relations

Japan PM Kishida and Biden commit to defending Senkaku Islands

New leader and US counterpart confirm alliance's strength during first talks

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (Source photo by Reuters and Kai Fujii)

TOKYO (Reuters) -- New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday that he received a "strong" message from President Joe Biden about the United States' commitment to defending the disputed East China Sea islets known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan.

In phone talks on Tuesday morning that lasted roughly 20 minutes, the allies also confirmed their cooperation toward achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific, Kishida told reporters at the prime minister's official residence.

The call came a day after Kishida called a parliamentary election for Oct. 31 and vowed to bolster the country's response to the pandemic. He was voted in by lawmakers on Monday as the nation's new prime minister.

"We confirmed that we would work together toward the strengthening of the Japan-US alliance and free and open Indo-Pacific," Kishida said. "We also confirmed we would work closely on issues related to China and North Korea."

"Especially, the president made a strong comment on the U.S. commitment to defend Japan, including the Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty," Kishida added, referring to U.S. defense obligations to Japan, which cover the uninhabited island.

Japan has become increasingly concerned about Chinese activity in the East China Sea, including incursions into waters around the disputed islands, known as the Diaoyus in China.

Kishida, a 64-year-old former foreign minister with an image as a consensus builder, unveiled a cabinet lineup dominated by allies of former prime minister Shinzo Abe and ex-finance minister Taro Aso.

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe's brother, kept his position, as did Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, reflecting Kishida's intention to continue Abe's push to boost security ties with Washington while preserving trade ties with China.

The new prime minister is also expected to deepen engagement with the United States, Australia, India and Japan -- known as the Quad -- which Beijing sees as an effort to contain its rise.

Kishida, who is from a traditionally dovish LDP faction, had tacked to the right as he campaigned to be the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), reflecting a broader shift in the LDP spurred by Abe's record-long tenure.

Kishida has said that acquiring the ability to strike enemy bases, a controversial step backed by Abe, was a viable option and that he would appoint an aide to monitor China's treatment of its Uyghur minority. China denies accusations of abuse.

One of Kishida's appointments garnering most attention is that of the new post of economy security minister. Kishida filled it with Takayuki Kobayashi, a 46-year-old graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School and Tokyo University, who has worked on policies aimed at protecting sensitive technology from China in areas such as supply chains and cyber security.

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