U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed Saturday to bolster ties with Japan amid a changing security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region while meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on the sidelines of the G-7 ministerial in Liverpool.

According to news reports, the top U.S. diplomat and his Japanese counterpart discussed mutual efforts to enhance deterrence and military strike capabilities in the face of China’s military buildup and North Korea’s nuclear program.

“The ministers, in light of the increasingly severe security environment in the region, agreed it is indispensable to boost the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” said an official who briefed media after the closed-door meeting.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday unveiled plans to strengthen Tokyo’s military defense posture.

The official said Hayashi and Blinken did not discuss the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over China’s human rights record, a move recently endorsed by Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States.

Blinken also met briefly with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on the sidelines of Saturday’s meetings, after which touted a “terrific year” for bilateral ties between the longtime allies without taking questions from reporters.

“Really, really remarkable things between Australia and the United States, from the Quad Leaders’ Summit, to AUKUS, to our 2+2, to the extremely important concentration and coordination on a whole series of issues,” Blinken said.

AUKUS is an acronym for a trilateral alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States, which includes a deal to build nuclear-propelled submarines for Australia—not a G-7 member—as part of enhanced deterrence against China’s military expansion across the Indo-Pacific region.

“I know that you and I [and] our friends from Japan and India really value those engagements,” Payne said. “They are now cemented into our future, whether it is the Quad, whether it is AUKUS. And the concrete that is the Australia-U.S. alliance for us underpins all of that effort.”

Talks amid rising tensions with China, Russia, Iran

Saturday’s meetings come on the first of two days of talks among foreign ministers from the world’s leading industrialized nations, informally known as the G-7, to discuss Russia’s buildup of troops along the border it shares with Ukraine, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, addressing the military seizure of Myanmar, and the global coronavirus pandemic.

Talks opened early Saturday with a call from British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to unite against authoritarianism globally.

“We need to come together strongly to stand up to aggressors who are seeking to limit the bounds of freedom and democracy,” Truss said before meeting with Blinken and their counterparts from France and Germany to discuss ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations unfolding concurrently in Vienna.

Blinken on Friday held “productive” meetings with counterparts from Britain, Germany and France about finding a way forward for the Iran talks, according to a State Department readout.

ASEAN involvement

Blinken also had a series of in-person meetings Saturday with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of a Dec. 9-17 trip that also will take him to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hawaii.

Blinken’s trip is part of a U.S. effort to further advance its “strategic partnership” with ASEAN as President Joe Biden’s administration aims to begin a new “Indo-Pacific economic framework” in early 2022.

This marks the first time ASEAN countries were included in the G-7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting, wherein the diplomats are discussing China’s efforts to increase its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Next week in Jakarta, Indonesia, Blinken will deliver remarks on the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership.

“The secretary will have an opportunity to discuss the president’s newly announced Indo-Pacific economic framework,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters in a call briefing. “President Biden is committed to elevating U.S.-ASEAN engagement to unprecedented levels,” he added.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. Kritenbrink told VOA on Wednesday that Blinken will attend a vaccine clinic hosted by the largest faith-based nongovernmental organization in Indonesia.

Blinken then heads to Malaysia and Thailand, where he will attempt to advance U.S. ties and address shared challenges, including fighting COVID-19, building resilient supply chains, dealing with the climate crisis, and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

The State Department said Blinken will “address the worsening crisis” in Myanmar in each country during his lengthy trip. The military in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, seized power in a February coup, overthrowing the civilian government.

U.S. officials had indicated the new Indo-Pacific economic framework would include broad partnerships with nations in the region in critical areas such as the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, and clean energy.

“The Indo-Pacific region is a critical part of our economy. It’s not just that it accounts for over half of the world’s population and 60% of global GDP” (gross domestic product), Jose Fernandez, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said in a recent briefing.

“Seven of the top 15 U.S. export markets are in the Indo-Pacific. Two-way trade between the U.S. and the region was over $1.75 trillion,” he added.

There are, however, concerns that the U.S. is lagging behind China in deepening economic and strategic ties with ASEAN.

“ASEAN countries want more from Washington on the economic side, but the Biden administration’s proposed Indo-Pacific economic framework is likely to fall short of their expectations,” said Susannah Patton, a research fellow in the foreign policy and defense program at the United States Studies Center in Sydney.

“After RCEP enters into force, there will be two megatrade pacts in Asia: RCEP and CPTPP, and the United States is in neither,” said Patton, referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“China’s application to join CPTPP, a vehicle that was designed to promote U.S. economic ties with Asia, highlights Washington’s absence,” Patton told VOA. Signed in 2018, the CPTPP is a free-trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.

In November 2020, 10 ASEAN member states and five additional countries (Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) signed the RCEP, representing around 30% of the world’s GDP and population. RCEP will come into force in January.

Others said the new Indo-Pacific economic framework appears to be not just about traditional trade, as Washington is signaling strategic interests in the region.

Wayne Lee contributed to this report. Some information for this report was provided by Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.