U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday hailed new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as a "force for good" and said he believes Suga will work to strengthen the relationship between Washington and Tokyo.
Speaking at start of his meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo, Pompeo said he agreed with Suga that a free and open Indo-Pacific was the foundation of regional peace and stability.
"Prime Minister Suga was a powerful force for good, and for this relationship, too, when he was the chief cabinet secretary," Pompeo said, referring to Suga's more than 7 years in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet.
"The United States has every reason to believe he will strengthen our enduring alliance in his new role."
Suga, who replaced Abe last month as premier, faces a tricky task balancing the need to maintain working ties with bigger neighbor China and U.S. demands for a tougher stance.
Pompeo is in Japan for the Quad grouping of foreign ministers — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — and is scheduled to meet Suga later in the day.
Pompeo's visit to Japan, his first to East Asia since July 2019, comes at a time when the ties between the United States and strategic rival China are at their worst in decades and as Washington looks to solidify support among Asian allies against Beijing.
Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who met Pompeo earlier on Tuesday, said on Twitter she had spoken with him about "our ongoing cooperation to promote peace, stability & prosperity in our region."
Pompeo's trip has been shortened to only include a full day in Japan after visits to South Korea and Mongolia were scrapped when President Donald Trump tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized. Trump has since then returned to the White House after a three-night hospital stay to be treated for the virus.
Washington and Beijing, the world's top two economies, are at loggerheads over a wide range of issues from Beijing's handling of the coronavirus to its imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong and ambitions in the South China Sea.
Most Asian allies have been pleased with Washington's toughness toward their regional rival China, but have not so eagerly welcomed Trump and Pompeo's highly charged recent rhetoric and remain wary of going too far in antagonizing China.
The Unites States greatly values the meeting of the Quad grouping of foreign ministers as a platform to strengthen its solidarity against China with regional allies.
"We're hoping to have some significant announcements, significant achievements," Pompeo told reporters at Joint Base Andrews in the United States before departing for Tokyo, but he declined to say what they would be.
China has denounced the Quad as an attempt to contain its development. While the Quad meeting is unlikely to yield a specific action plan, the very fact of its gathering would serve as a warning to China and play to its fears that it might one day grow into a formalized grouping as NATO, experts have said.
The agenda for the Quad meeting is expected to include economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chains, disinformation, critical minerals, infrastructure investment in the region and counter-terrorism, officials involved in preparation for the meeting said.
A joint communique is not expected to be issued, because the Quad is not a formal alliance, but foreign ministers are expected to release separate statements after the meeting.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the foreign ministers are likely to emphasize their support for a free and open Indo-Pacific region at the meeting.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pompeo met with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Tokyo. The duo posed in front of their respective flags sporting face masks and with no handshake.