Threats from China and North Korea will loom large over the Biden administration’s first cabinet-level trip abroad, part of a larger effort to bolster US influence and calm concerns about America’s role in Asia.
A senior administration official said the US had tried to reach out to North Korea through multiple channels since last month, but had yet to receive a response, making consultations with the reclusive country’s neighbours – Japan, South Korea and China – all the more critical.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken and defence secretary Lloyd Austin are heading to Japan and South Korea for four days of talks starting on Monday, as the administration seeks to shore up partnerships with the two key regional treaty allies.
Mr Blinken and president Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, will then meet with senior Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska.
Great to be back in Hawaii. Tomorrow, I kick off a week of meetings with my @INDOPACOM leadership, as well as my counterparts in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and India. We have many important issues to discuss to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. pic.twitter.com/FVAAF5Fx9n
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) March 14, 2021
Their first official overseas visits are intended to restore what Mr Biden hopes will be a calming and even-keeled approach to ties with Tokyo and Seoul after four years of transactional and often temperamental relations under the previous president, Donald Trump. He had upended diplomatic norms by meeting not once, but three times, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In addition to their official talks, Mr Blinken and Mr Austin plan to hold virtual meetings with journalists, civil society members and others. After reassuring their counterparts of US commitments to Japanese and South Korean security, they plan to focus their talks on co-operating to confront an increasingly assertive China, the nuclear challenge from North Korea and the coronavirus pandemic.
In his first months in office, Mr Biden has already signalled his desire to return the Asia-Pacific – or Indo-Pacific, as has become more common in official laguane – to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. In keeping with his broader “America is back” diplomatic theme, Mr Biden has pledged to keep stability in the region at the core of his international initiatives.
On Friday, Mr Biden participated in a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. “A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential,” Mr Biden told his fellow members of the so-called Quad. “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 the 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 spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic outreach.
As the administration plots its strategy, the official said it would continue to consult with the Japanese and South Koreans, as well as with the Chinese, and had also reached out to numerous former US officials involved in North Korea policy, including from the Trump presidency.
Mr Biden’s meeting with the Quad came less than a week after US and South Korean negotiators overcame years of contentious discussions under Mr Trump to reach a tentative deal on paying for the American troop presence in South Korea. That agreement, along with a similar one for Japan, will be front and centre in Mr Blinken and Mr Austin’s meetings.
As he had done with allies in Europe, Mr Trump threatened to reduce security co-operation unless host countries paid more, sparking fears of troop withdrawals at a time of particular uncertainty as China boosts efforts to dominate the region and North Korea’s nuclear weapons remain a major source of angst.
“Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy, and we are working to strengthen America’s relationships with our allies as well as the relationships among them,” said Sung Kim, the top US diplomat for Asia. He served in the Philippines and Indonesia during the Trump administration and was also previously the special envoy for North Korea.