- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Biden administration this week is racing to line up key Asian allies ahead of a high-stakes meeting with top Chinese officials in Alaska on Thursday — a meeting that analysts say will offer a key window into how the complex geopolitical showdown between Washington and Beijing will play out over the next four years.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts Tuesday and will meet with South Korean officials Wednesday as part of their whirlwind tour through the region, the first official overseas trip for both men. It comes on the heels of President Biden’s virtual meeting last week with the leaders of India, Australia and Japan, the first head-of-state gathering of the “Quad,” a coalition designed as a counterweight to China.

The administration is betting that its quick reengagement with key East Asian allies will give the U.S. an edge at the bargaining table with China.

“We’re working with allies and partners to actually strengthen our hand,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday evening. “We are coming in with what we feel like is an increasingly strong hand to come to the table with our Chinese interlocutors.

“The conversations in Anchorage are very much intended as an initial discussion to understand our interests, intentions and priorities, and frankly to get a bit of an understanding of where the Chinese are at,” the official said.

But the state-controlled Global Times in an editorial this week accused the Biden administration of seeking to recruit South Korea and Japan as “bargaining chips” in the confrontation with China, an approach the Beijing news outlet said was doomed.

Seoul and Tokyo would welcome more support and trade with Washington to stand up to China, the paper said, “but they don’t want the Americans to put knives into their hands and force them to stab China or sacrifice their own interests for the U.S.’s sake.”

The standard inaugural tour of a new administration has sparked an unusually high level of interest across the region. Beijing is watching closely, and the secretive North Korean regime has issued its first formal recognition of and first formal threat to the Biden administration.

Mr. Austin plans a solo trip to India during the China meeting in Alaska. The series of meetings has offered some clarity on how the administration will approach its relationship with Beijing.

The White House is seeking to reinvigorate partnerships with allies that critics say were sometimes pushed to the back burner by former President Trump, while retaining and perhaps even ratcheting up the prior administration’s tough rhetoric and policies.

Mr. Blinken said Tuesday that the U.S. is fully prepared to take a hard line when necessary and to stand up against China’s efforts to pressure other countries through economic or military means.

“We’re united in the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, where countries follow the rules, cooperate whenever they can and resolve their differences peacefully,” he said. “We will push back, if necessary, when China uses coercion and aggression to get its way.”

Mr. Austin, meanwhile, described China as “the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense,” a nod to the consensus within the Pentagon that the People’s Liberation Army poses the greatest long-term challenge to U.S. national security and its interests worldwide.

China is now the world’s second-biggest economy and is the largest trading partner of more countries than the U.S. Its generously funded military now boasts the world’s largest navy, the largest army and an expanding array of missiles, warships and fighter planes, all of which are helping the PLA rapidly challenge U.S. preeminence in East Asia.

China’s aggressive military posture in areas such as the South China Sea was one aspect singled out in an unusually blunt U.S.-Japanese joint statement released Tuesday. The document warned that China’s behavior “presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community.”

“The ministers committed to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region, which undermines the rules-based international system,” the statement read in part.

It specifically singled out a recently enacted Chinese law that gives the country’s coast guard authority to use force. The U.S.-Japanese statement also reiterated support for international freedom-of-navigation operations to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and other international waters. Those operations increased dramatically during Mr. Trump’s time in office and have continued under Mr. Biden.

The U.S.-Japanese statement also expressed “serious concerns” about China’s treatment of ethnic minority Uyghurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region and raised objections to China’s harsh crackdown against protesters in Hong Kong.

Face to face

Mr. Blinken and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan surely will raise each of those issues directly with Chinese officials when the two sides meet Thursday in Anchorage, Alaska. It will be the highest-level face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Chinese leaders since Mr. Biden took office in January.

Ahead of that meeting, analysts say, the administration must understand that even its closest allies such as Japan and South Korea may not necessarily back every U.S. policy toward China on every issue.

Ryan Hass, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said the Biden administration will find regional partners in Asia, along with allies around the world, willing to work with the U.S. “on an ad hoc, issue-by-issue basis” rather than adopting a broad anti-China policy that mirrors Washington on all fronts.

“Countries will join the United States in seeking to influence Beijing based on their own priorities and how China relates to them,” he wrote in an analysis this week. “For some, the goal might be to push Beijing to halt its problematic behavior. For others, it might be to press China to exercise greater leadership in addressing global challenges such as climate change. To weave together issue-based coalitions, the United States will need to meet partners where they are, rather than demanding that they accept Washington’s perception of a China threat.”

Chinese officials are watching the administration’s moves closely and on Tuesday offered subtle criticism of just how heavily the U.S.-Japanese and U.S.-South Korean discussions focused on Beijing.

“We believe that exchanges and cooperation between the U.S. and Japan should help regional countries enhance mutual understanding and trust, strengthen solidarity and cooperation, and uphold peace and stability in Asia Pacific,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference. “Their interactions shall not target a third party or hurt the interests of a third party.”

China is by no means America’s only challenge in the region. Late Monday, North Korea’s state-run Central News Agency quoted Kim Yo-jong, the sister of dictator Kim Jong-un, issuing a blunt warning to the Biden administration and to its South Korean neighbor.

“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land,” she said, referring to recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

“If it wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step,” she said.

The intense focus on the Blinken-Austin meetings reflects how much Mr. Trump’s administration transformed the landscape in Asia and how much was left undone.

The Trump administration tried to secure a deal that would offer economic sanctions relief and private financial investment to North Korea in exchange for a full end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Despite unprecedented in-person meetings between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, such a deal was not reached.

Mr. Blinken said Washington will continue to “strive for realization of complete denuclearization of North Korea” and will work with allies toward that end.

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