China, North Korea Top On Agenda As Blinken Kicks Off First Asian Tour | Military news

Seoul, South Korea – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will make their first overseas trip on Monday as they visit key Asian allies of Japan and South Korea for discussions that could potentially be dominated by questions of how to deal with a rising China and a potentially nuclear China. -armed North Korea.

The two men will begin 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 leaders of the two countries. They will then travel to Seoul, South Korea on March 17. Next, Blinken is expected to meet with his Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Anchorage, in the US state of Alaska.

Blinken and Austin’s tour of East Asia follows a breakthrough in talks over cost-sharing US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, an issue that had marred bilateral relations under the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The cost-sharing deals will come in handy for Blinken and Austin as they seek support from Tokyo and Seoul to counter threats from Beijing and Pyongyang.

At the center of this effort is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an informal alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia and India that the four countries say aims to strengthen an “open Indo-Pacific and free”.

Stressing the region’s importance to US foreign policy, US President Joe Biden, who took office on January 20, convened the first-ever Quad country leadership summit on Friday, at which leaders met committed in a statement to work closely on COVID. -19, climate change and security issues.

They did not explicitly name China, but aimed at Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region by stating that the four countries “aspire to a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values ​​and not constrained by coercion ”. He also added that they would respect international law in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with several of its neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The statement also affirmed “the group’s commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”

Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, citing government sources, said on Sunday that the meeting between Blinken, Austin and their Japanese counterparts would directly criticize China for what they call its attempts to change the status quo in the disputed East and South China Seas. .

‘Class A enemy’

However, South Korea is unlikely to enter the US-China competition or become a member of the Quad. Although the United States is the ultimate guarantor of the country’s security – intervening in the 1950-53 Korean War to defeat invading troops from the north – China is by far the largest trading partner of the United States. South Korea.

Beijing has already used this economic influence to step up pressure on Seoul over issues it sees as a security threat.

In 2017, after South Korea decided to deploy an American missile defense system, known as THAAD or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, China imposed informal sanctions on South Korean companies that depend on Chinese consumers. , including its tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries.

“Once you join the Quad, you become a Class A enemy from Beijing’s point of view,” Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute of South Korea, told Al Jazeera. .

South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD in 2017 raised internal anger and economic pressure from China [File: Kim Jun-beom/Yonhap via REUTERS]

While Japan sees China as a greater threat than North Korea, Seoul’s top priority is Pyongyang and Beijing remains the key to mitigating this threat.

“South Korea is strategically sandwiched between China and the United States,” said Daniel Bong, a researcher at the Yonsei Institute for North Korea Studies. But given Seoul’s constraints on Beijing, “the United States would be better off focusing on South Korea by maintaining a reliable deterrent against North Korea,” Bong said. In this way, Washington could aim for “a kind of division of labor”, working with Japan to counter China and with South Korea to counter North Korea, he added.

North Korea hasn’t conducted nuclear tests in recent years, but analysts warn the Biden administration shouldn’t take this for granted.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at the January Workers’ Party Congress says the United States is his country’s “main enemy” and pledged to expand nuclear and ballistic missiles with the aim of “launching a preventive strike and retaliation”. He also presented what he claimed to be the “the most powerful weapon in the world“.

The responsibility for defusing tensions now falls squarely on Washington, analysts say, especially given the failed Trump-Kim diplomatic romance in the wake of the collapse of the 2019 summit in Vietnam.

“The North Koreans have now noted on several occasions since the failure of the Hanoi summit that they have a declining opinion that the nature of relations between the DPRK and the United States can actually change,” Jenny Town said, senior member of the Stimson Center, at a roundtable in March. 10, referring to North Korea by its official name.

For the discussions to resume, “the ball [is] in American and South Korean courts, ”she added.

Go nuclear

Lee of the Sejong Institute says North Korea may already be a “de facto nuclear state” and denuclearization may no longer even be a realistic option.

The United States and its allies are also considering how to resume talks with North Korea, which unveiled its last missiles in January, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says it is continuing its nuclear activities. [File: KCNA via REUTERS]

The United States “would at some point have to settle for a compromise, just as Washington does with India and Pakistan – implicitly, but not officially, recognize North Korea as a nuclear state and have a very firm with North Korea that they will not proliferate nuclear technology for other countries or terrorist groups, ”Lee said.

Improving the strained relationship between Seoul and Tokyo could also help the United States bring North Korea under control. Despite the recent fury of a Harvard article denying aspects of Atrocities committed during the war in Japan in South Korea, there could be an opportunity for the two states to close ranks – to the benefit of US interests – analysts say.

Yonsei’s Bong suggests the upcoming Tokyo Olympics could be an opportunity to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

If the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in “shows an olive branch” to the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Moon could gain “Japanese support to use the Tokyo Olympics as a platform for a another round of high diplomacy between North Korea and South Korea, ”he said.

But even as the United States seeks to strengthen ties with Japan and South Korea, there is long-standing public opposition in both countries to a strong alliance with Washington.

There are 55,000 American troops in Japan and 28,500 others in South Korea.

The relocation of the US Army base in Okinawa was pushed during the tenure of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe despite intense criticism from local residents and low-level flight by US military planes continues to generate revenue. opposition on the island where about half of all American forces are located. in Japan are based.

In South Korea, a vocal peace movement also opposes strengthening military cooperation between the United States and South Korea, which many see as an obstacle to improving relations with North Korea.

The South Korean peace movement staged a protest last week against the new defense cost-sharing agreement with the United States [Kim Chul-Soo/EPA]

“The large-scale military exercises, the strengthening alliance and the huge military build-up do not lead to dialogue and negotiation in the near future,” said Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Seoul Peace Network. , at Al Jazeera.

The biggest challenge for the Biden administration, as it scours foreign policy reviews around the world amid the disarray and confusion caused by Trump’s America First strategy, is defining, once again , interests and values ​​of the United States to its main allies.

He has already signaled his intention to cooperate with China in some areas – including climate change and the pandemic. But he also indicated that the harsh approach to alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang will continue.

“The United States needs to be clear on what it wants to do with China and then go around the Asian region with a sales pitch for that strategy,” said Lee de Sejong.

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