Ahead of an all-crucial meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials later this week in Alaska, top Biden administration officials are rallying regional allies for a united front against the Asian powerhouse.
In their first foreign trip (March 15-18), the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have embarked on “two plus two” meetings with their counterparts in Japan and South Korea, two treaty allies on the frontline of a brewing Sino-American rivalry.
Thereafter, Austin is set to visit (March 19-21) India for a separate three-day visit, as Washington aims to enlist the Asian giant’s support in a broader concerted effort to check Beijing’s rising ambitions.
The tours come shortly after Biden’s hastily arranged inaugural virtual summit with “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) counterparts, namely India, Japan and Australia.
During their Japan visit, Blinken and Austin met their Japanese counterparts Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, respectively.
The two allies expressed their shared positions on several key geopolitical flashpoints, from nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula to the ongoing democratic protests in Myanmar as well as the “human rights situation in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”
China, however, was clearly at the center of the bilateral discussions. After their meeting, the two allies “reaffirmed that the US-Japan Alliance remains the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
In a nod to Washington’s hope for increased contribution by its regional allies to preserve a “free and open” order in Asia, Japanese officials made it clear that the country is “resolved to enhance its capabilities to bolster national defense and further strengthen the Alliance.”
The US, in turn, “underscored its unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan through the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear.”
Although the US and Japan shunned any direct mention of China in the recently-concluded Quad summit and Quad ministerial meeting a few weeks earlier, the four ministers minced no words on China in their joint bilateral statement.
“The United States and Japan acknowledged that China’s behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the Alliance and to the international community,” said the two allies, directly characterizing China as a threat to a liberal regional order.
A major area of concern for both allies is China’s expanding naval footprint and territorial ambitions in adjacent waters, from the East to the South China Seas, where several US allies and partners are at loggerheads with Beijing.
To more effectively counter China’s behavior, the two allies agreed to further “enhancing close coordination to align security policy, deepen defense cooperation across all domains, and bolster extended deterrence by consulting on Alliance roles, missions, and capabilities” and to ensure joint “operational readiness and deterrent posture.”
Japan also promised to closely coordinate any necessary operational changes that may arise from the US Department of Defense’s Global Posture Review, which may have major implications for US military bases in key allied states such as Japan.
In a sign of growing urgency to meet China’s ambitions head-on, the two allies agreed to finalize plans to bolster US military facilities on Japanese soil, including the construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility at the Camp Schwab-Henokosaki, despite the long-running political controversy around America’s military presence on Japanese soil.
The Biden administration hopes to achieve similar strategic reassurances from its South Korean ally, which also hosts a large number of US troops. Washington also seeks to ensure relatively functional strategic and defense cooperation between its two major Asian allies given the bitter turn in Japan-Korea relations in recent years.
In India, the aim is to build maximum possible defense cooperation short of a formal alliance, given New Delhi’s foundational commitment to a “non-aligned” foreign policy.
Washington has made it clear that the aim of the diplomatic blitzkrieg is to foster a “credible deterrence” against China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, from diplomatic and trade bullying of allies such as Australia to deepening maritime and territorial disputes with Japan, India and a number of Southeast Asian allies.
The Biden administration has so far struck a dramatically divergent tone from its predecessor by emphasizing the centrality of alliance-building in its Asian policy, particularly vis-a-vis China.
Outgoing US president Donald Trump adopted a tough policy against Beijing, unleashing a years-long trade war while dramatically expanding naval deployments across China’s adjacent waters.
The Trump administration also doubled down on defense cooperation with like-minded powers, especially Quad members India, Japan and Australia. But bouts of “Make America Great Again” protectionism and unilateralism repeatedly sparked tensions with allies and strategic partners from Europe to Asia, undermining efforts at building a united front against China.
That’s arguably now changing. The Biden administration has largely embraced a similarly tough strategy against China, warning of “extreme competition” between the two superpowers amid unresolved trade disputes and expanding naval deployments to the South China Sea and Western Pacific.
In contrast to its predecessor, however, Biden’s team has adopted a radically different tactical approach, namely constant consultations and coordination with allies.
Crucially, the Biden administration has also injected an ideological element into its foreign policy by primarily focusing on enhancing ties with fellow democracies as part of its efforts to actively promote “American values” on the global stage and counter the “sharp power” of authoritarian superpowers such as China.
As the world’s largest democracy with burgeoning military capabilities, India represents the ultimate strategic prize for the Biden administration, which aims to create “arc of democracy” around China’s immediate peripheries from the Indian to the Pacific oceans.
“This is all about alliances and partnerships,” said Austin during a press conference in Hawaii, the seat of the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, ahead of his highly anticipated visit to Asia this week.
“Our goal is to make sure that we have the capabilities and the operational plans… to be able to offer a credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the US,” the Pentagon chief added, emphasizing the necessity to enhance joint military preparedness with allies.
“One of the things that the secretary of state and I want to do is begin to strengthen those alliances,” said Austin, emphasizing the Biden administration’s alliance-driven approach to countering Chinese influence. “This will be more about listening and learning, getting their point of view,” he added.
This all sets the stage for when Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meet their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska this week, in what promises to be just the first in a series of crucial exchanges between the two superpowers.
Blinken has characterized US relations with China as “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” with the Alaska meeting serving as a “a one-off session” to “lay out, in very frank terms, the many concerns that we have [with China’s behavior].”
“The more China hears, not just our opprobrium, but a course of opprobrium from around the world, the better the chance that we’ll get some changes,” said Blinken ahead of the US diplomatic offensive in Asia, making it clear that establishing a united front against China is a Biden administration top foreign policy priority.