Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will head to Japan and South Korea for four days of talks beginning Monday as the new administration tries to strengthen partnerships with the two major regional allies. Jake Sullivan, Blinken and Biden’s national security advisor, will meet with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday.
The trip aims to restore what Biden hopes will be a calming and balanced approach to relations with Tokyo and Seoul after four years of often moody dealings and relationships under Donald Trump. He turned diplomatic norms on their head by meeting not once but three times with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Blinken and Austin also plan to have virtual meetings with journalists, members of civil society, and others. After reassuring their counterparts about the United States’ commitments to the security of Japan and South Korea, they plan to focus on an increasingly assertive China, North Korea’s nuclear challenge, and the coronavirus pandemic.
In his first months in office, Biden signaled his desire to bring the Asia-Pacific region back to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. In keeping with his broader diplomatic theme of “America is back,” Biden pledged to maintain stability in the region at the core of his international initiatives.
On Friday, Biden participated in a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. “An open Indo-Pacific is essential,” Biden said. The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all of our allies in the region to achieve stability.
As part of this effort and to “reduce the risk of escalation,” the senior official said that efforts had been made to communicate with the North Koreans since mid-February, including through what is known as the “New York Channel”. “We have not received any response so far from Pyongyang,” the official said. The official was not authorized to discuss diplomatic contact publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, US and South Korean negotiators have overcome years of contentious discussions under Trump to reach an initial agreement on paying for the costs of the US troop presence in South Korea. This agreement, along with a similar agreement for Japan, will be front and center at the Blinken and Austin meetings.
As he has done with allies in Europe, Trump has threatened to reduce security cooperation unless the host countries pay more. This has led to fears of a troop withdrawal at a time of particular uncertainty as China strengthens its efforts to control the region and North Korea’s nuclear weapons remain a major concern.
“Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy, and we are working to strengthen America’s relations with our allies as well as the relations among them,” said Song Kim, the top US diplomat in Asia. He served in the Philippines and Indonesia during the Trump administration and was previously also the special envoy for North Korea.
As for all Biden’s suggestions that it would reflect Trump’s overt hostility to China, Biden has yet to nullify one of his predecessor’s policies. In fact, he reaffirmed many of them, including maintaining sanctions in response to human rights violations in western Xinjiang and Hong Kong and reaffirming a Trump-era decision to reject nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Many of China’s policies that the United States considers unacceptable – including its crackdown in Hong Kong, escalation of anti-Taiwan rhetoric and actions in the South China Sea – began during the Obama administration. The previous Democratic administration assumed its duties promising to “turn to Asia” after a period considered by many to be American neglect of the region during the presidency of George W. Bush, which was consumed by the outbreak of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, although some apparent circumstances have changed since 2009, Blinken and Austin’s trip reflects in many ways the first foreign trip of President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, when she traveled to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and then China in an effort to reassert US interests in the region. Asia and the Pacific. But Obama’s dealings with China did not lead to the desired results, and the North Korean threat grew.
Although China is not on Blinken’s itinerary, after terminating the station in Seoul, he will return to Washington via Anchorage, Alaska, where he and Sullivan will meet with senior Chinese officials. Austin will travel from Seoul to New Delhi to hold meetings with Indian leaders.
However, the administration is convinced that its domestic efforts to revitalize the US economy and intensify the fight against COVID-19 have put it in a better position to directly weaken Chinese ambitions and leverage its partnerships to do the same.
Sullivan said on Friday: “After the work of the past fifty days, Secretary Blinken and I will enter the meeting with senior Chinese representatives from a position of strength.”
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