Biden Envoys Kick Off Asian Allies Visit to Build Unity on China

Secretary of State Antony Blinken started his first overseas trip since taking office, heading to the U.S.’s two key allies in Asia as Washington seeks to counter security threats from China and North Korea.

Blinken, expected to arrive in Japan on Monday, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will hold talks with their counterparts in Tokyo and then head to South Korea later in the week for similar discussions. The meetings are intended to reassure the U.S. allies of Washington’s commitment after the Trump administration accused Japan of being a security freeloader and sought a five-fold increase from Seoul in the money it spends to host American military personnel.

The trip comes after President Joe Biden on Friday held the first virtual summit with so-called Quad partners Australia, India and Japan, all of whom have their own tensions with China. References in a statement released after the meeting to an “open” Indo-Pacific region and shared security interests leave little doubt the talks were a show of unity against Beijing.

“As countries in the region and beyond know, China in particular is all too willing to use coercion to get its way,” Blinken and Austin wrote in a joint opinion piece in the Washington Post just ahead of their visit. “Here again, we see how working with our allies is critical.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who plans to travel to the White House in April for Biden’s first face-to-face discussions with a foreign leader, underscored the importance of ties with the U.S. before Blinken’s arrival, telling parliament he hopes for a stronger alliance.

Biden Envoys Kick Off Asian Allies Visit to Build Unity on China

The Biden team’s push is a clear demonstration of the importance it attaches to Asian alliances, said Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo. It also reassures Japan that the U.S. will be firm with Beijing, he added.

“For all the complaints that Japan has had about the Biden administration going soft on China, this I think proves that that’s not the case,” he said.

Trump’s White House eschewed collaboration with other nations on trade and the environment, instead confronting China with tariffs, sanctions and a beefed up military presence in the Pacific. Biden is set to maintain a hard line on Beijing -- as evidenced by the move to ban the export of 5G components to Huawei Technologies Co. -- but his administration is seeking to avoid the perception it is only interested in engaging Asian nations as part of efforts to confront China.

The Quad grouping, which was elevated under the Trump administration, has been admonished by China as a “clique” that could stoke a new Cold War. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian continued that criticism, saying Monday at a regular news briefing that the practice of establishing cliques aimed at certain countries is a detriment to the international order.

Japan and South Korea both count China as their biggest trading partner and walk a fine line in keeping a good relationship with both Beijing and Washington.

Biden Envoys Kick Off Asian Allies Visit to Build Unity on China

Ties between South Korea and Japan hit new depths during the presidency of Donald Trump as the neighbors bickered over whether Tokyo has been sufficiently contrite for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The friction touched off a trade dispute that at one point threatened global supply lines for semiconductors and nearly led South Korea to abandon a joint intelligence-sharing agreement.

Japan and South Korea host about 80,000 U.S. military personnel between them, the bulk of American presence in the region. The troops are meant to be a front-line defense against North Korea and provide a counterweight to China. Beijing has intensified its campaign to dominate the resource-rich South China Sea and has been challenging Tokyo over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that both sides claim.

Blinken will meet top Chinese diplomats in Alaska on his way home from Asia. Those talks, which also include National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, would represent the highest-level in-person exchange between the two sides since Biden took office in January.

North Korea’s official media has yet to mention Biden by name since his election. Leader Kim Jong Un increased tensions by unveiling new submarine-launched ballistic missiles at a military parade in January, weapons that experts said would be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to all of Japan.

Kim opened the year by calling the U.S. his “biggest main enemy” and said he would put North Korea on a path to develop more advanced nuclear technologies and missiles.

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