WASHINGTON (AP) – Threats from China and North Korea will rise to prominence during the Biden administration’s first overseas trip, part of a larger effort to bolster U.S. influence and defuse concerns about America’s role. in Asia.
A senior administration official said on Saturday that US officials have tried to communicate with North Korea through multiple channels since last month, but have yet to receive a response. That makes consultations with the lonely country’s neighbors, Japan, South Korea and China, even more critical.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are heading to Japan and South Korea for four days of talks starting Monday as the new administration tries to strengthen partnerships with the two key regional allies. Blinken and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday.
The trip aims to restore what Biden hopes is a calm and balanced approach to ties with Tokyo and Seoul after four years of transactional and often temperamental relationships under Donald Trump. He had disrupted diplomatic rules by meeting not once but three times with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Blinken and Austin also plan virtual meetings with journalists, members of civil society, and others. After reassuring their counterparts of 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 has voiced his desire to return Asia-Pacific to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. In keeping with his broader diplomatic theme of “America is back,” Biden has vowed to keep stability in the region at the center of his international efforts.
On Friday, Biden participated in a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. “A free and 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 that effort and “to reduce the risks of escalation,” the senior official said efforts had been made to connect with North Koreans since mid-February, including through what is known as the “New York channel.” . To date, the official said, “we have not received any response from Pyongyang.” The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the diplomatic approach and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, negotiators for the United States and South Korea have weathered years of contentious discussions under Trump to reach a tentative agreement on paying for the presence of American troops in South Korea. That deal, along with a similar one for Japan, will be front and center at the Blinken and Austin meetings.
As he had done with his allies in Europe, Trump threatened to curtail security cooperation unless host countries paid more. That raised troop withdrawal fears at a time of particular uncertainty as China pushes for efforts to dominate the region and North Korea’s nuclear weapons remain a major source of distress.
“Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy and we are working to strengthen US relations with our allies, as well as relations with each other,” said Sung Kim, who is the top US diplomat for Asia. He served in the Philippines and Indonesia during the Trump administration and was also previously a special envoy for North Korea.
Despite all of Biden’s suggestions that he will reverse Trump’s outright hostility toward China, Biden has yet to counter a single of his predecessor’s policies. In fact, it has reaffirmed several of them, including maintaining sanctions in response to human rights abuses in western Xinjiang and Hong Kong and reiterating a Trump-era decision to outright reject nearly all of China’s maritime claims. in the South China Sea.
Many of China’s policies that the United States finds objectionable, including its crackdown in Hong Kong, intensified rhetoric against Taiwan, and actions in the South China Sea, began during the Obama administration. The previous Democratic administration took office promising a “turn to Asia” after a period of what many saw as American neglect of the region during the George W. Bush presidency, which was consumed by the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, while some obvious circumstances have changed since 2009, Blinken and Austin’s trip reflects in many ways the initial overseas trip of President Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, when she traveled to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and then China in an attempt to reassert American interests in the Asia-Pacific. Obama’s engagement with China, however, did not produce the desired results, and the threat from North Korea grew.
Although China is not on Blinken’s itinerary, after concluding the layover in Seoul, he will fly back to Washington via Anchorage, Alaska, where he and Sullivan will meet with senior Chinese officials. Austin will travel from Seoul to New Delhi to meet with Indian leaders.
Still, the administration is convinced that its internal efforts to revitalize the US economy and step up the fight against COVID-19 have put it in a better position both to curb Chinese ambitions outright and to leverage its partnerships to make the same.
“After the work of the last 50 days, Secretary Blinken and I will enter the meeting with senior Chinese representatives from a position of strength,” Sulllivan said Friday.