The Biden administration is making a push to remind China that the US remains involved and active in the Indo-Pacific despite Washington and the West's current preoccupation with a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate over Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Australia this week on a trip designed to reinforce America's interests in Asia and its intent to push back on increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
He will also visit Fiji and discuss pressing concerns about North Korea with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Hawaii.
In Melbourne on Friday, Blinken will attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the so-called “Quad” — Australia, India, Japan and the US — a bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies created to counter China. While China will top the agenda, US officials say Ukraine and the relationship between Beijing and Moscow will also be a topic for discussion.
As White House and State Department spokespeople are fond of saying, the administration “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
With the Quad, Blinken is expected to highlight the benefits of Indo-Pacific nations aligning themselves with democracies and democratic values, officials said. “That part of that discussion will relate to the challenges that China poses to those values and to the rules-based order,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for Asia.
However, particularly after the recent meeting in Beijing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics, Blinken is also expected to address threats posed by a growing partnership between the two authoritarian nations.
The US had hoped that the Xi-Putin meeting would have demonstrated Chinese wariness about Russia's military buildup along Ukraine's borders. Instead, as China increasingly asserts its determination to reunite the island of Taiwan with the mainland, Xi was largely silent on the matter.
“That meeting should have provided China the opportunity to encourage Russia to pursue diplomacy and de-escalation in Ukraine. That is what the world expects from responsible powers,” Kritenbrink said. If Russia invades Ukraine and "China looks the other way, it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia's efforts to coerce Ukraine even when they embarrass Beijing, harm European security, and risk global peace and economic stability.”
US officials have noted that Russia has previously mounted military action against a former Soviet republic during a Beijing-hosted Olympics when it moved against Georgia during the 2008 Summer Games. “We have, unfortunately, seen this before,” Kritenbrink said.
The US and its allies have spoken out forcefully about Chinese policies toward Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, the western region of Xinjiang and the South China Sea. They accuse Beijing of rampant human rights abuses, repression of dissent and forcefully seizing territory that its smaller neighbors also claim.
US officials say they expect Blinken and the others at the Quad meeting in Melbourne to reiterate their concerns about China's actions, especially recent show-of-force demonstrations directed at Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. On Monday, the Biden administration greenlit a $100 million arms sale to Taiwan that will support its US-made missile defense systems.
Blinken's three-day stop in Australia will also be the highest-level US visit to the country since the two nations along with Britain signed a broad security pact last year that pointedly canceled a major submarine deal between Australia and France.
The French reacted angrily to the so-called “AUKUS” agreement and accused the US and Australia of duplicity in leaving it out. The Biden administration responded by sending several high-level officials, including Blinken, Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to Paris, to try to repair the damage.
In meetings with Australian officials, Blinken is expected to further try to minimise the spat by making the point that France, specifically, and Europe more broadly will not be ignored as the US and others plot Indo-Pacific strategies.
After a brief stop in Fiji, where he will be the first secretary of state to visit since 1985, Blinken will return to Washington via Hawaii, where he will hold North Korea-focused talks with the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.
A series of recent North Korean missile tests have underscored the threat posed by the nuclear-armed nation, which has ignored multiple entreaties by the United States to return to the negotiating table.
“Countering the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs remains a top priority for the United States and I am confident the same can be said for our Japanese and South Korean partners,” Kritenbrink said of the talks planned for Honolulu.
“We have made clear many times that we remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions to achieve that end and to make tangible progress. We have reached out repeatedly to Pyongyang; however, to date, we have not received a substantive response,” he said.