Like many U.S. governments before it, the Biden administration intended a foreign policy “pivot” toward China and Asia. Washington faced immediate war in Gaza and an unpredictable pullout from Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, arrived in Melbourne, Australia for a tour. He will be trying to assert U.S. control in the Indo-Pacific against rising China, and to assure allies that their concerns are not being treated less seriously in Washington. Blinken is due to meet with his Japanese, Indian, and Australian counterparts. The Quadrilateral Security Dialog (or Quad) is an on-again/off-again group that was established as a counterbalance against Beijing.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him, Blinken insisted that the Biden administration has maintained a “sustained focus” on the region despite an all-consuming and urgent mission to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. He said he was on the phone in consultations over Ukraine during the long flight from Washington to Australia — the latest of some 200 engagements in recent weeks — and acknowledged that video-conferences and calls between Washington and European capitals on the crisis would continue to hum in the background of the talks in Melbourne.
“Having said that, the world is a big place, our interests are global and you all know very well the focus that we have put on the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific region,” Blinken said.
Blinken and the Quad representatives will tackle an “increasingly broad and deep agenda,” he said. It will be dominated both by Chinese aggression on land or sea that most countries in the region consider to be unacceptable, and other emerging issues that may be threatened by Beijing.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne welcomed Blinken’s arrival and that of the other Quad ministers, saying that by gathering here they were “voting with their feet in terms of the priority that they accord to [Indo-Pacific] issues.”
U.S. officials acknowledge that a pep-talk is necessary.
Blinken “will demonstrate the strength and the credibility of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said ahead of the trip. “We intend to demonstrate that our partnerships deliver, and they deliver practical and real benefits to our own peoples and to the peoples of the region.”
Some in Asia expected greater interaction with President Biden, who campaigned on a shift to “strategic competition” with China as a pillar of his foreign policy. During Biden’s eight years as vice president, the Obama administration had also promised a “pivot” to Asia as its diplomatic focus.
However, full-on engagement was delayed because of the escalating crises around the globe. In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has converted himself into leader for life, continued to claim Beijing’s sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea; pushed its massive “Belt and Road” program, which spends billions of dollars in development money to gain influence in Europe, Africa and Latin America; and ignored international criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority, which the U.S. has called a genocide.
China once more took center stage at the world’s largest event, the Winter Olympics.
The U.S., along with several Western countries, refused to send delegations. But, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, attended and struck a striking symbolic pose alongside Xi as leaders of a new postdemocratic alignment. Both men made statements expressing their support for one another.
“A much more powerful and assertive Xi government increasingly sees U.S. geopolitical strategy and activities in Asia through a very similar lens as [the one through which] Putin has long viewed American activities in Europe,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said in an analysis of Blinken’s tour. “To China, the Quad feels a lot like NATO encroachment does to Putin.”
One potential flashpoint is China’s claim on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway republic much as Putin views post-Soviet Ukraine. However, many analysts think it unlikely that Xi would confront NATO — whose member nations constitute a valuable market for China — with Putin-like force.
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Biden’s focus on Asia seems to have been misplaced, however, Michael Green, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, stated that the Biden administration is still trying to find its footing in Asia policies, despite its statements.
Green claimed that Trump’s administration is credited with naming China a strategic rival, but it did not implement its policy. Biden “has picked up and amplified” that decision, “but has essentially no economic strategy for Asia.”
Green noted the issues that Blinken and others list, such as emerging technologies and digital, trade and supply chains, but said the response so far was without “content.”
“It’s all nouns and no verbs,” he told a podcast for the National Bureau of Asian Research. “There’s no action — it’s all just themes.”
After the talks in Australia, Blinken will travel to Fiji to meet with leaders of Pacific Island nations and to Honolulu to meet with South Korean officials.