China likely to be hot topic when top US officials visit Japan, South Korea, observers say

Sarah Zheng
·5-min read

The United States will raise its concerns about escalating regional pressure from China in strategic talks with Japan and South Korea this week, as it seeks to rebuild its alliances ahead of a high-level meeting with Chinese diplomats in Alaska, analysts say.

On their first overseas trips as representatives of US President Joe Biden’s administration, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin arrived in Tokyo on Monday evening for a meeting with their Japanese counterparts the next day, followed by a foreign and defence ministerial in Seoul on Wednesday.

Antony Blinken’s visits to Japan and South Korea will be his first as US secretary of state. Photo: AP
Antony Blinken’s visits to Japan and South Korea will be his first as US secretary of state. Photo: AP

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US officials said the talks were likely to cover deterrence against regional threats, trilateral cooperation on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, accountability for countries like China “when they fail to adhere to their international commitments and obligations” and Beijing’s repression of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

Analysts said the talks with America’s allies were intended to give Blinken a position of strength going into his meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday. It will also seek to repair relations with key US allies in the wake of former US president Donald Trump’s chaotic foreign policy and at a time when Washington is seeking to counteract Beijing’s assertiveness in the region.

The meetings in Tokyo are expected to focus on security issues like the disputed Diaoyu Islands – which are administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus, but also claimed by Beijing – and wider Indo-Pacific issues.

In Seoul, the dialogue would centre on concerns about North Korea, after the recent agreement to share the cost of having US troops in South Korea, observers said.

Zhou Yongsheng, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said the US would seek greater support from Tokyo and Seoul on issues relating to China and the Korean peninsula, and would go into the Anchorage meeting with more assurances and a better understanding of its allies’ positions.

“The timing is an intentional arrangement, since Biden’s international strategy is to first strengthen its alliances, reach a consensus among its allies and then work together with them to confront China,” he said.

“The US is first meeting with leaders in Japan and Korea to understand their attitudes, needs and bottom lines on China, as well as to gauge their level of cooperation with the US, and the scale and willingness with which they are willing to act on China.”

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Zhou said Tokyo would also be concerned that Beijing might seek to forcefully bring the self-ruled island of Taiwan under its rule, describing the situation in the Taiwan Strait as having reached “a very dangerous brink”.

Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said last week he was worried China might invade Taiwan within the next six years.

US acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Sung Kim told reporters that China would feature “prominently” in the conversations in Tokyo and Seoul but would not necessarily “dominate the conversations”.

Other agenda items included cooperation on the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, North Korea, human rights and the rule of law, he said.

Regional security is likely to be one of the hot topics when US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin meets his Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Photo: AP
Regional security is likely to be one of the hot topics when US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin meets his Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Photo: AP

Takashi Terada, a professor of international relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said Japan would be hoping to secure American commitment to defend the East China Sea and to bolster its security alliance with the US.

He said anxieties were growing in Tokyo about China’s new maritime law, which took effect last month and gave quasi-military status to China’s coastguard near the Diaoyus.

“This will be Blinken and Austin’s first in-person overseas trip under the Biden administration, illustrating the level of US engagement in the Indo-Pacific security,” he said.

Others said that while Japan might be inclined to work with Washington on China, South Korea was likely to be more reluctant to adopt a confrontational approach towards its giant neighbour.

China should brace for ‘difficult’ issues during Alaska meeting, US says

Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said South Korea was likely to want to make the meeting “less anti-China”, as it had to find a way to work with China while prioritising its alliance with the US.

“Washington will not push Seoul too hard this time,” he said. “Rather, [it] will try to highlight restoring the alliance … and the spirit of strengthening trilateral cooperation among Washington-Seoul-Tokyo. Washington knows too well that it takes time to earn the trust from its allies back, after four years of Trump belittling allies.”

Liu Zongyi, an associate research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said that the US wanted to use the meetings to reaffirm its security commitment to Japan, while for Seoul the focus would be on North Korea and how to ease tensions with Tokyo.

“The issues in the Japan and Korea meetings are different, but the purpose is clear for the US to strengthen its relationships with these allies,” he said.

“They are taking place before the China-US talks in Alaska to add more pressure on China.”

Additional reporting by Kinling Lo

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