The head of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific said Friday his forces are committed to defending the southwestern Japanese islands as allies in the region try to bolster defenses amid growing threats from China and Russia.

Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, and commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, said at the beginning of talks with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi that the U.S. Marine presence is focused on the so-called first island chain in the western Pacific — the string of islands stretching from Japan’s East China Sea islands through the Philippines. The islands have traditionally defined a boundary of China’s sphere of influence, but Beijing now appears to be pushing eastward.

“With our forces west of the international dateline, we will continue to live, train and work in the first island chain primarily with the assistance and support of our Japanese host,” Rudder said.

The United States and Japan are looking to develop capabilities and tactics to ensure readiness in the region, he said. His comments come on the heels of China’s and Russia’s increased naval activity around Japan.

The Defense Ministry said it spotted a fleet of seven Russian warships off the southern coast of China, heading southwest Thursday. The ministry also found several Chinese intelligence ships near the Tsugaru Strait in northern Japan, just days after they were seen in waters off southern Japan.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force is working closely with Japanese troops to advance amphibious capabilities in defending remote islands in southwestern Japan, Kishi said.

After a decade of steady increases in military spending, Japan has pledged to further bolster its military readiness over the next five years and is working on a revision to its security strategy in the face of threats from China, North Korea and Russia.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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