On Japan visit, US secretaries of state and defence set combative tone for upcoming China talks

Before Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin landed in Tokyo, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the United States to 'stop interfering in China’s internal affairs'

The New York Times March 17, 2021 10:29:52 IST
On Japan visit, US secretaries of state and defence set combative tone for upcoming China talks

File image of retired general Lloyd Austin, the US secretary of state. By Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool © 2021 The New York Times

Tokyo: Just days before the Joe Biden administration’s first face-to-face encounter with China, two senior US envoys used a visit to Tokyo on Tuesday to set a confrontational tone for the talks, rebuking what they called “coercion” and “destabilising actions” by China in its increasingly aggressive military forays in the region.

Following a flurry of meetings, US and Japanese officials issued a two-page statement that left little doubt that President Joe Biden would defy China in territorial disputes, challenges to democracy and other regional crises. Its robust censure of Beijing represented the kind of vigorous approach that Japan has been seeking from the United States after four years of skepticism worldwide about whether the US would remain a reliable ally.

Accusing Beijing of violating the “international order” with maritime claims and activities, the statement defended Japan’s right to administer the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China. It also called for stability in the Taiwan Strait, as some U.S. military officials see a growing chance that China will move to assert sovereignty over self-governing Taiwan in the coming years.

After the Japanese defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, referred to an “increasingly tense security environment” at the start of a meeting Tuesday, the two US officials, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, offered reassurance.

“We will push back when necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to try to get its way,” Blinken said. Austin noted Beijing’s “destabilising actions” in the South and East China Seas, saying, “Our goal is to make sure that we maintain a competitive edge over China or anyone else that would want to threaten us or our alliance.”

Taken together, the Americans’ statements amounted to the most explicit admonishment in recent years by U.S. diplomats of Chinese provocations toward Japan and the rest of the region. They offered a taste of what is likely to come Thursday, when Blinken is to meet in Alaska with two top Chinese officials in the Biden administration’s opening bid to define the limits of its relationship with Beijing.

For Japan, the meetings — the highest-level foreign travel so far by the new administration — offered comfort for those who had worried that Biden might back down from the Trump administration’s tough stance against Beijing.

“I think the message is directed to the Japanese people,” said Toshiyuki Ito, a retired vice admiral who is now a professor of crisis management and international relations at Kanazawa Institute of Technology. He added that the visit by Blinken and Austin signalled that “America has changed from ‘America First’ to putting importance on the alliance.”

Near the top of the agenda for Japan was the Senkaku, a string of rocky outcrops in the East China Sea.

For years, China has sent boats into or near Japan’s territorial waters around the disputed islands, known as the Diaoyu in China. Tensions flared in 2012, when activists landed on one of the islands, and frequent incursions have continued since.

US officials have voiced concern that Chinese and Japanese coast guard forces could be drawn into a shooting match as they patrol the island chain and are authorised by their governments to use deadly force to defend them. Last year, Chinese ships spent a total of 333 days in Japan’s contiguous waters, the longest time on record, according to the Japanese Defence Ministry.

A senior US defence official also noted repeated incursions by Chinese military aircraft into Japan’s “air defence identification zone” — an area that extends hundreds of miles from the Japanese mainland and includes the Senkakus — which are often met by Japanese fighter jets.

Tensions have also recently flared in the Taiwan Strait. In January, China flew four warplanes over the waterway, in what was widely interpreted as a show of force just after Biden took office.

Last week, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command warned of China’s growing threat to Taiwan, a democratically governed island that has increasingly resisted Beijing’s insistence that it is part of a “greater China.”

The commander, Admiral Philip S Davidson, said China’s threat to Taiwan “is manifest in this decade — in fact, in the next six years.” The next day, a US destroyer passed through the Taiwan Strait — the third such voyage since Biden came into office, signaling support of Taiwan.

US officials have sought to cast the talks this week with China in Anchorage, Alaska — which will come after Blinken and Austin travel to Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials — as an informal session to outline issues on which the United States may be willing to work with Beijing. But they will also offer a chance to condemn China’s territorial encroachments and its threats against human rights and democracy in the region.

The joint statement issued Tuesday cited “serious concerns” regarding Beijing’s human rights abuses against protesters in Hong Kong and against Uighurs and other minority groups in the western region of Xinjiang.

A day earlier, before Blinken and Austin had landed in Tokyo, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the United States to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” and instead cooperate to manage differences and improve relations between the two superpowers.

“Certain countries have been so keen to exaggerate and hype up the so-called ‘China threat’ to sow discord among regional countries, especially to disrupt their relations with China,” said the spokesman, Zhao Lijian. “However, their actions, running counter to the trend of the times of peace, development and cooperation and the common aspirations of the countries and peoples in the region, will not be welcomed or succeed.”

During the Trump years, amid the aggressive rhetoric from the administration, Japan sought to balance its relationship with China, drawing closer to its neighbour as a hedge against growing unease about a smaller US presence in the region.

On Japan visit US secretaries of state and defence set combative tone for upcoming China talks

File image of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. By Ting Shen/Pool © 2021 The New York Times

In 2018, the prime minister at the time, Shinzo Abe, traveled to Beijing, the first visit there by a Japanese leader in seven years. Before the pandemic, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was invited to Japan for a state visit. Even last year, as Chinese military aggression expanded and Beijing cracked down on Hong Kong, Japan pursued a lighter approach to China, its largest trading partner.

Now, with the Biden administration in place and with China growing increasingly assertive, Japan seems more willing to join with the United States in its unequivocal criticism of China’s actions.

Kishi, the defence minister, said that Japan could “absolutely not accept” China’s actions to increase tensions in the East and South China seas, and indicated they were violating international laws.

Yet the Japanese foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, was less overt in criticising China.

While Blinken explicitly singled out China — and Myanmar, where the military staged a coup last month — for threatening “democracy, human rights and rule of law,” Motegi avoided mentioning China directly. He said that he welcomed the alliance for its role in protecting “peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

Analysts said Japan may temper its language because it has more to lose from confrontation with China.

“One big difference is their economic relationships with China,” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “While the US can live without China, Japan cannot. They have to find a common ground there.”

The high-level visit from Washington sought, in part, to remind Japan that it shares much common ground with the United States. That it was the first official trip overseas for both Blinken and Austin since taking office was repeated several times Tuesday to assure Japan of its value to the Biden administration.

The alliance with Japan never suffered as much damage under the Trump administration as US partnerships in Europe. Abe maintained a close relationship with former president Donald Trump and hosted him for two visits to Japan. In October, when then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the two exchanged a fist bump that lasted 15 seconds.

On Tuesday, when Suga met with Austin and Blinken at his official residence, they all bowed — as is the custom in Japan.

Lara Jakes, Motoko Rich and John Ismay c.2021 The New York Times Company

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