Pentagon chief Mark Esper meets Japan's Shinzo Abe amid North Korea missile launches

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper poses for a photograph with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter's official residence in Tokyo, Japan on Aug 7, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (KYODO) - United States Defence Secretary Mark Esper met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday (Aug 7) for the first time since taking office last month, with the two expected to discuss regional security in the face of recent missile tests by North Korea.

In a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Takeshi Iwaya later in the day, Mr Esper will likely call on Japan to maintain an intelligence-sharing pact with South Korea despite growing enmity between the neighbours over trade policy and wartime history.

Seoul has suggested it may pull out of the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, in response to Tokyo's tightening of export controls on some materials crucial to the South Korean high-tech industry.

The pact, signed in November 2016, allows the neighbours to share sensitive information concerning North Korea, which launched what are believed to be short-range ballistic missiles four times in less than two weeks. A deadline to decide whether to renew it for another year comes later this month.

Mr Esper, a Gulf War veteran and former executive at defence contractor Raytheon Co, became Pentagon chief on July 23, filling a seven-month void left by the resignation of his predecessor Jim Mattis.

He is on a tour of the Asia-Pacific region that includes Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia and South Korea. On Friday (Aug 9), he is slated to meet South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong Doo in Seoul.

In the meeting with Mr Iwaya, Mr Esper may also ask Japan to join an envisioned coalition to protect ships in and around the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world's oil passes.

Japan's enthusiasm for the plan, intended to counter Iran's activities in the waters, has been mixed. Britain has announced its willingness to participate, while Germany has declined.

Mr Abe said on Tuesday that he will decide what role his country can play, based on a range of considerations including ties with both Washington and Teheran.

Japan will play "as much of a role as possible" in easing tensions in the Middle East, he said in a speech in Hiroshima.

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