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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the visiting chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed Thursday that Japan and the United States should strengthen bilateral ties as China increases its presence in the South China and East China seas.
Abe told Robert Menendez at a meeting in Tokyo that the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance is "increasing more and more" at a time when the "strategic environment" in the Asia-Pacific region is undergoing drastic change.
Menendez, making his first trip to Asia since becoming the committee chairman, said Japan is the cornerstone of U.S. involvement in East Asia, with both Tokyo and Washington sharing such values as democracy and human rights.
The two discussed issues concerning Okinawa, Japan's southwestern prefecture where opposition to the U.S. military presence there was stoked anew by the crash of a U.S. Air Force helicopter on Okinawa's main island last week in which one of four crew members aboard died.
They also talked about the so-called "Abenomics" economic policy pursued by the Abe government in reviving the Japanese economy, including the "three arrows" of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and a growth strategy, according to Menendez.
Abe and Menendez agreed that the two countries should cooperate in crafting a free trade agreement involving Pacific-rim countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the latter noting the importance of Japan's recent participation in the U.S.-led initiative, according to Japanese officials.
"The treaty alliance we have with Japan is the cornerstone of our engagement in Asia, which is why I wanted to make it (Japan) our first stop," the senator told reporters after the meeting.
Menendez also said he appreciated Abe meeting with him on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, saying, "I'm mindful that the prime minister welcomed me on a day in history, which only goes to show how far the two countries have come together."
With Abe refraining from visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the anniversary, the U.S. lawmaker said, "I think his decision today is one that's very clear, very thoughtful and looking toward the future."
Whether Abe would visit the Shinto shrine was being closely watched as the shrine is seen by some other Asian countries as a symbol of Japan's past militarism because it enshrines 14 Japanese who were convicted as Class-A war criminals, as well as millions of the war dead.
During a separate meeting later in the day, Menendez and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida agreed it is important for Japan and the United States to proceed with the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan as agreed on between the two countries, including the stalled construction of a new U.S. Marine Corps air base on Okinawa's main island, the officials said.
The two also agreed on the importance of the rule of law in the region, reflecting a move in the Senate in July, where lawmakers, in light of China's growing maritime assertiveness, unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the use of force to assert territorial claims in regional waters.
During a meeting on Wednesday with the leader of the New Komeito party, the junior partner of the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition, Menendez called for the restoration of Japan-China relations.
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