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Top US Officials in Asia on First Overseas Visit

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs after briefing Senators in Washington, March 11, 2021.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin will meet with allies in Japan and South Korea this week to reaffirm the trans-Pacific partnerships in the face of an increasingly assertive China and silent North Korea.

Washington’s top diplomatic and defense officials will begin their tour of the region Monday with a stop in Tokyo, marking their first overseas travel as representatives of the Biden administration.

Blinken and Austin will hold what’s known as a “two-plus-two,” a meeting between foreign and defense chiefs with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi, Tuesday before departing for Seoul on Wednesday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Defense Department personnel at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Feb. 10, 2021.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Defense Department personnel at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Feb. 10, 2021.

The selection of these two countries for first stops reflects the new U.S. president’s security concerns in Northeast Asia, say some observers.

“The fact that Secretaries Blinken and Austin are making their first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea demonstrates the deep importance the United States places on these two allies,” Patricia Kim, a senior policy analyst at the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in an emailed statement on Friday.

“Seoul and Tokyo are critical partners for collectively addressing the challenges posed by China and advancing peace in the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies are at a low point due in part to a trade war that former president Donald Trump initiated as well as rising military tensions in areas that China regards as its sphere of influence.

Less than two months into his presidency, Joe Biden has signaled that he’s in no hurry to relieve some of the pressure that his predecessor placed on Beijing. His administration has maintained import tariffs, voiced support for Taiwan’s democratic government and condemned President’s Xi Jingping for alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China's Xinjiang region has been the center of allegations of forced labor and other human rights violations.

Last week, the White House released its national security strategy document that described China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

By dispatching his secretaries to the capitals of two of America’s closest partners, the new president hopes to shore up a multilateral counterbalance to China in the region, experts say.

“China is our pacing threat," Defense Secretary Austin, a retired U.S. Army general,

told reporters while en-route to Asia, the Pentagon said in a statement. “Our goal is to make sure that we have the capabilities and the operational plans and concepts to be able to offer credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the U.S.”

Despite these remarks, Washington is signaling that it is still open to dialogue with Beijing.

Secretary Blinken and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan are expected to meet later in the week with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, and chief diplomat Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska- the first time since last June that officials from both countries have held bilateral talks.

North Korean silence

Finding common ground on how to coerce the Kim Jong-un regime back to dialogue will be another priority during the secretaries’ visits to Tokyo and Seoul.

President Biden has yet to announce his strategy toward North Korea, but a policy review is currently underway.

But, since February, the Biden administration has attempted to reach out to Pyongyang through several diplomatic channels, but hasn’t received any response, according to an unnamed U.S. official who spoke with the Reuters News Agency.

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says Pyongyang could be ignoring these overtures for any number of reasons, including prioritizing domestic economic issues or out of fear of holding talks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Pyongyang may be waiting to see what incentives are on offer after the Biden policy review,” Easley, wrote in an email response to VOA. “Or North Korea might be planning its next weapons test to improve its capabilities and raise the stakes for negotiations.”