In Tokyo on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put U.S. alliances, and cooperation with allies to counter China’s challenges to U.S. primacy, at the center of the Biden administration’s foreign policy in its first Cabinet-level trip abroad.
Blinken promised the U.S.’s unwavering commitment to defend Japan “through the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear.” A key part of the Biden administration’s “America is back” rhetoric involves reassuring allies who were unnerved by the Trump administration’s sometimes dismissive view of alliances.
A joint statement issued after the meetings said 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.”
It added that the ministers had “committed to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region, which undermines the rules-based international system.”
In the meetings and public statements, Japan dropped its usual reluctance to call out China by name. Tokyo has reserved its most direct criticism of Beijing for maritime disputes in the East China Sea, especially over the disputed Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, claimed by both nations but controlled by Japan.
Secretary Austin and Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed concern about a new Chinese law, authorizing its coast guard to fire on intruders into what it considers Chinese territorial waters.
The ministers also raised human rights issues in Hong Kong, where the mainland has cracked down on democracy protests, and China’s far-western Xinjiang region, whose the nation’s minority Muslim population is facing wide-scale repression.
The allies also called for peace in the Taiwan Strait, a narrow body of water between the mainland and Taiwan that has been the focus of military posturing by China.
China did not respond Tuesday to any of the ministers’ specific points, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said that cooperation between the U.S. and Japan should promote peace and stability in Asia, and not undermine the interests of any third party.
Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with top Chinese diplomats in Alaska, after visiting Seoul, South Korea, while en route back to Washington.
The U.S. and Japanese ministers also expressed concern about the military coup and bloody suppression of protests in Myanmar, seen as an early test of U.S. ability to mobilize allies and promote values-based diplomacy.
Japan’s behind-the-scenes communication with Myanmar’s military, urging it to restore democratic civilian rule, have so far yielded few visible results. Today, Myanmar charged its ambassador to the U.N. Kyaw Moe Tun with treason, according to Reuters. The ambassador has condemned the coup.
U.S. and Japanese officials also affirmed the importance of trilateral cooperation between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, but made no mention of how the two Asian neighbors might narrow their differences.
A big part of reviving the U.S. system of alliances in Asia is getting Tokyo and Seoul to put aside a long and bitter feud over historical issues, including the sexual enslavement of Korean and other women by the Japanese army during World War II, and the 1910-1945 Japanese colonialization of Korea.
The ministers also reaffirmed their commitment to work for the denuclearization of North Korea, and address the North’s violations of human rights. The Biden administration is conducting a policy review to decide its next moves on North Korea, including possibly reviving nuclear negotiations, which have remained stalled for the past two years.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong made Pyongyang’s first statement Tuesday targeted at the Biden administration, criticizing joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which have been scaled back, both due to the pandemic, and in order to leave room for diplomacy with Pyongyang.
Kim Yo Jong threatened that Pyongyang could scrap an inter-Korean military peace pact, and urged the U.S. to avoid hostile actions, which might “keep it from getting a good night’s sleep.”