The U.S. Ambassador to Japan stressed Friday the importance of increased deterrence and his country’s commitment to the alliance with its key ally as he visited two southwestern Japanese islands at the forefront of Tokyo’s tension with Beijing.

Japan has been making a southwest shift of its defense posture, and is further accelerating its military buildup under the 2022 security strategy which focuses on counter-strike capability with long-range cruise missiles.

Highlighting their solid alliance in the Indo-Pacific, Rahm Emanuel visited Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island just east of Taiwan, a self-governed island also claimed by China. He later visited another Japanese island Ishigaki, home to Japan Coast Guard patrol boats defending the disputed East China Sea island s and Japanese fishermen from armed Chinese coast guard ships that routinely enter Japanese waters.

Emanuel was the first U.S. ambassador to visit Yonaguni. Escorted by local mayor Kenichi Itokazu he looked towards Taiwan, only 110 kilometers (68 miles) away.

Emanuel met with a local fisherman, one of the victims of China’s increasingly assertive actions in the regional seas.

The lives of Japanese fishermen were affected when five missiles China fired into Japan’s exclusive economic zone landed in the area in 2022 after the visit of the then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, Emanuel said. The ambassador said the fisherman told him that he could not sell his fish for about a week after the Chinese action.

“If they don’t have deterrence, that’s going to be worse,” Emanuel told the Associated Press from Ishigaki, a second island he visited Friday. “If you have a very robust deterrence, it ensures that there is peace, ensures that there is security, ensures economic prosperity,” he said. “Without that, it’s more likely to be a green light to those that want to use economic coercion and confrontation as their only means of expression.”

In Ishigaki, Japan coast guards protect fishing boats in the disputed waters around the Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo calls Senkaku. Beijing also claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu, and its coast guard ships often face-off with Japanese counterparts.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed the ambassador’s trip to the islands, saying it was “meaningful” for the ambassador to improve his understanding of Tokyo’s efforts in reinforcing its security in the southwestern region, where additional military units and missile defense systems are being deployed.

While Local officials back the reinforcement of Japanese troops on the islands, a small protest was staged by local residents who are concerned that they may be the first to get affected in a possible U.S.-China conflict.

Okinawa’s Gov. Denny Tamaki, who supports the Japan-U.S. security alliance but calls for a reduction of the island’s burden of hosting half of about 50,000 American troops based in Japan, criticised the use of Yonaguni’s commercial airport by a U.S. military aircraft used by the ambassador.

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