Seoul, South Korea – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will make their first overseas trip on Monday as they visit key Asian allies Japan and South Korea for discussions likely to be dominated by questions of how to handle an ascendant China and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea. The two men will start their tour in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, on March 15 for so-called two-plus-two meetings, which will bring together the diplomatic and military leadership of the two countries. They will then head to South Korea’s Seoul on March 17. Afterwards, Blinken is expected to meet his Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Anchorage in the US state of Alaska.
Blinken and Austin’s east Asian tour comes on the heels of a breakthrough in talks on the sharing of costs for US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, an issue that had soured bilateral ties during the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The cost-sharing arrangements will stand Blinken and Austin in good stead as they seek to enlist Tokyo and Seoul’s support in countering threats from Beijing and Pyongyang.
Central to that effort is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an informal alliance between US, Japan, Australia and India that the four countries say is aimed at shoring up an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. Underscoring the region’s significance in US foreign policy, US President Joe Biden, who took office on January 20, convened the first-ever leader-level summit of the Quad countries on Friday at which the leaders pledged in a statement to work closely together on COVID-19, climate change and security issues.
They did not explicitly name China, but took aim at Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region by declaring that the four countries “strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”. It also added that they would uphold international law in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with several of its neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The statement also affirmed the group’s “commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea”. Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper, citing government sources, said on Sunday that the meeting between Blinken, Austin and their Japanese counterparts would directly criticise China for what they call its attempts to alter the status quo in the disputed East and South China Seas.