Biden aides to hold first talks with ‘top threat’ China in Alaska

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden Administration's Priorities for US Foreign Policy, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 10 March 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

US President Joe Biden’s top aides will hold their first talks with China next week in Alaska, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowing Wednesday (10 March) to seek “tangible” action on concerns with the nation he calls the top threat.

In a sign of Biden’s strategy to rally allies in the face of China, Blinken will first jointly travel to Japan and South Korea with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who separately will head onward to India.

Blinken will then join Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, in talks in Anchorage on 18 March with their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi.

“This is an important opportunity for us to lay out in very frank terms many concerns that we have with Beijing’s actions and behavior that are challenging the security, prosperity, the values of the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He said he would also look for areas of cooperation with Beijing but did not intend follow-up meetings.

“Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China,” Blinken said.

In a flurry of diplomacy, Biden will also Friday hold a three-way virtual summit with the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan — nations deeply suspicious of China’s growing influence.

Biden and Blinken have both already spoken by telephone with Chinese leaders, with Biden saying he pressed President Xi Jinping on human rights, trade and its regional assertiveness in an unusually long two-hour call last month.

The Alaska talks will be the first between the Pacific powers since Yang met Blinken’s hawkish predecessor Mike Pompeo in June in Hawaii — a setting similarly chosen to be away from the high-stakes glare of national capitals.

The Biden administration has generally backed the tougher approach to China initiated by former president Donald Trump but insisted that it can be more effective by shoring up alliances and seeking narrow ways to cooperate on priorities such as climate change.

In a speech last week, Blinken called China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” as it alone can “seriously challenge the stable and open international system.”

Signal to allies

The Biden team has been deliberately hesitant to start the hectic travel schedules that traditionally herald a new administration as it tries to set an example by discouraging travel in its bid to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Blinken had his first foreign “trip” on 25 February as he met virtually with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada, complete even with a videotaped crossing of a bridge over the Rio Grande.

Biden and Blinken, both known as Europhiles, have also moved quickly to ease tensions with European allies that soared during Trump’s turbulent presidency.

The United States and European Union declared a ceasefire in a bitter trade dispute over aircraft subsidies and Biden has sharply reversed course from Trump by backing diplomacy on Iran and climate change — with Biden’s climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, on a visit this week to Europe.

Blinken and Austin will start their trip in Tokyo on Tuesday for joint meetings with their Japanese counterparts.

The top US diplomat, appearing virtually even while in Tokyo, will also address Japanese business leaders and journalists and highlight “the role of a free press in promoting good governance and defending democracy,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Biden has pledged a renewed focus on democracy in the wake of Trump amid what advocates say is a deterioration of media freedom and democratic principles around the world.

In Seoul, Blinken will similarly speak virtually with South Korean youth and journalists and consult on Biden’s review of policy toward North Korea in the wake of Trump’s splashy summits with leader Kim Jong Un.

The Pentagon said Austin will meet Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and seek a deepening partnership in India, whose relations with China have worsened following a deadly Himalayan clash last year.

India, a fierce opponent of the Taliban, is also a key player as Biden decides whether to go ahead with Trump’s agreement with the Islamist insurgents to pull all US troops from Afghanistan by May.

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