Amid mounting conjecture about his poor health, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday met the head of the US Space Force and agreed to enhance bilateral defence cooperation in outer space. Abe’s meetings with foreign officials have been disrupted this year by the coronavirus pandemic as well as his own his recent visits to hospital, which have prompted speculation about whether he will remain in office . However, Abe’s meeting with Chief of Space Operations General John Raymond underlined the significance of the joint plans as regional rivals China and Russia have developed their capabilities is space . Raymond was visiting Japan for the first time since the creation of the Space Force and his appointment last December. He became the first high-ranking foreign official to meet with Abe since late February. Amid rivalry with China, Japan is aiming for the moon – and beyond Abe and Raymond discussed strengthening cooperation between the Space Force and the Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s Space Operations Squadron, as well as the US plan to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said. Created in May with just 20 members, the Space Operations Squadron is tasked with monitoring threats to Japanese satellites such as space debris and meteorites. It is expected to grow in size and become fully operational in 2023. The Space Force, meanwhile, is a full-fledged branch of the US military with 16,000 airmen and civilian personnel. It was launched by US President Donald Trump to counter the ambitions of Russia and China, which have been accused of developing anti-satellite weapons, as well as ballistic missile threats from North Korea. Who would succeed Shinzo Abe if he resigned due to health concerns? Raymond, who during his Air Force career was stationed at Yokota Air Base from 2010 to 2012, told Abe the US considers Japan its most important partner in outer space, the Foreign Ministry said. Abe last met with a high-ranking foreign official on February 28, when he received a courtesy call from Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi. Raymond also met with Defence Minister Taro Kono, science and technology minister Naokazu Takemoto and senior vice foreign minister Keisuke Suzuki on Thursday, a day after participating in a comprehensive Japan-US dialogue on space.