TOKYO (AP) — The leaders of Japan and Italy said Monday they will bolster their cooperation in security and defense, including their joint next-generation fighter jet development with Britain, as Tokyo welcomed the European nation’s shift toward playing a greater role in the Indo-Pacific.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, after meeting his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, welcomed Italy’s move to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where several visits by Italy’s warships, including its strike group, and joint exercises are planned this year.

“Japan and Italy are valuable strategic partners that share values and principles such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” Kishida said.

Kishida also praised progress in their joint development of a new advanced fighter jet with Britain.

The three countries in December signed an agreement to establish a joint organization to develop a new advanced jet fighter for deployment in 2035.

Japan, which is rapidly building up its military, hopes to have greater capability to counter China’s rising assertiveness while welcoming Britain’s bigger presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Italy recently left China’s global Belt and Road Initiative after apparently seeing little benefit from it.

The joint fighter jet development involves Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy, Britain’s BAE Systems PLC and Italy’s Leonardo.

The project, however, hinges on Japan easing its postwar ban on exporting jointly developed lethal weapons to third countries, which Kishida’s government is struggling to finalize by the end of February.

Kishida promised a full backing for Meloni to successfully convene their Puglia summit in June.

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