WASHINGTON – Two ambitions are at the heart of President Biden’s foreign policy agenda: rebuilding relationships with frustrated allies and building a united front with China.
He tries both this week when he sends two of his oldest envoys to Japan and South Korea on the highest foreign trips his government has made since it took office in January.
The visits to the United States’ strongest partners in East Asia mark the beginning of the Biden government’s opening round of personal contact with Beijing. One of the envoys, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, will travel to Alaska and meet with Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, for a meeting with two of China’s top diplomats.
The administration sees the gathering as an opportunity to set ground rules and red lines for a relationship that Mr. Blinken called “The greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” American officials have described it as a “one-off session” to identify issues on which Washington can work with Beijing – and then “be very open about the many concerns we have,” Blinken told Congress last week.
The tide of diplomacy that began on Friday with a virtual summit with the US’s so-called quad allies – Australia, India and Japan – puts the Asia-Pacific region as the top priority for the Biden administration after Barack Obama announced his ” The pivotal point “was set by Asia and Donald J. Trump’s outspoken transaction approach for alliances in the region.
The dialogue with allies in less than two months after the start of the new administration also underscores the president’s goal of strengthening international partnerships in order to face opponents and thus other American interests.
“The more China hears, not just our opprobrium but also an opprobrium from around the world, the better the chance we will get some changes,” Blinken said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington last week.
It will not be easy. China, which got the coronavirus on its toes at the start of the pandemic, has only strengthened its economic position as rivals in the west struggle to recover. And militarily, it has narrowed the gap with the United States through huge investments. These strengths have helped encourage China on the global stage.
Even as Washington tries to forge a new, albeit cautious, relationship with Beijing, American officials on Friday downplayed the notion that China would overshadow the three days of discussions in Tokyo and Seoul. Mr Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III are expected to discuss a number of topics including the pandemic, climate change and the large presence of US forces in the area.
Relations between Japan and South Korea, which have bottomed out due to historical disputes, are likely to be a topic of conversation. Also on the agenda is the month-long military coup in Myanmar and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which remain in effect after the Trump administration’s failed flirtation with Northern leader Kim Jong-un.
The decision to make Japan the first destination for Mr Blinken and Mr Austin was seen as a significant and reassuring development in Tokyo that worked hard to maintain close ties with Mr Trump despite calling for a huge increase in payments to the Americans Keep troops in the country. On Friday, the White House announced that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be the first foreign head of state to meet with Mr Biden in Washington.
“At the end of the Trump administration on Asia, we argued with our allies about how much to pay for defense-related cost-sharing,” said Victor Cha, who oversaw Asia policy at the White House during the George W. Bush Administration and advises the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We had a very one-sided view of alliances as a nation, an almost contemptuous view of them.”
“At the same time,” said Cha, “China used its economic leverage across the region to harass other countries.”
The Trump administration has taken an often contradicting approach to China. Mr Trump often flattered his authoritarian leader Xi Jinping when he tried to strike trade deals. At the same time, his government criticized Beijing’s human rights violations, military and cyberspace attacks and attacks on democracy.
The Biden government’s strategy could prove just as dizzying. Mr. Blinken described the search for a relationship based on cooperation, competition and, if necessary, confrontation with China.
To make this work, the US is relying on support from allies such as Japan and South Korea. Both countries have tried to draw a fine line on China: their prosperity depends on trade with Beijing, but they break with China on issues of security, democracy and human rights.
Tokyo has grown louder as the Chinese military raided islands that Japan manages in the East China Sea, known as Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Seoul has as its moderate relations with Beijing Printing tactics against North Korea, Which depends on China to keep its economy alive.
For their part, China’s leaders have stated that they are keen to bring relations with the United States back to equilibrium. Some analysts have warned that steps toward détente may only buy China more time to develop technological and military capabilities before diplomatic collapse.
“As two countries with different social systems, China and the United States naturally have differences and disagreements,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference in Beijing on March 7th. Wang and Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, will meet with Mr. Blinken in Alaska.
Mr. Wang called it normal to have “healthy competition on a fair and equitable basis for the purpose of self-improvement and mutual improvement rather than pointing the finger or zero-sum competition.”
However, Chinese leaders also seem concerned about Biden’s strategy of uniting allies in a coherent bloc against China, which could damage Beijing politically and economically. Last week, for example, the Quad countries announced they would be shipping coronavirus vaccines to Southeast Asia to counter China’s own efforts at what is known as vaccine diplomacy.
He also drew a “red line” on Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that Beijing describes as an inalienable part of a larger China.
Days later, an American destroyer passed the Taiwan Strait. The United States describes such travel as routine but is viewed as hostile by China. It was the third time since Mr. Biden took office, which signaled the support of Taiwan.
While Japanese officials are sure to seek assurances from Mr. Austin that the US military would assist Japan in the event of a conflict with China over the Senkaku Islands, his time in Seoul is likely to be occupied with wondering whether it will return Regular large-scale military exercises with South Korea, which Mr. Trump abruptly canceled, are to begin.
Last week the two countries reached a cost-sharing agreement to station American troops in South Korea, a presence that Mr Trump had also threatened to end.
After the meetings in Tokyo and Seoul, Mr. Austin will travel to India wherever it is lowest point in relationships with China in decades after a deadly border raid last summer. Mr. Blinken will arrive in Alaska on Thursday to meet the Chinese ambassadors.
As he wished Mr. Blinken the best of luck in the talks, Texas Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chief on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that “we cannot treat them as normal opponents”.
“We are really in an ideological struggle that fights for democracy against authoritarianism and promotes freedom over oppression,” said McCaul. He added that the United States had “turned a blind eye” to the ruling Chinese Communist Party for four decades in hopes of convincing its leaders to follow international norms.
“Unfortunately, it just didn’t work,” said McCaul.
Lara Jakes and John Ismay reported from Washington and Steven Lee Myers from Seoul.