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U.S. diplomacy in Asia will be among the top foreign policy projects of President-elect Joe Biden’s team when they settle into the White House on Jan. 20, with the former vice president deputizing his incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and national security adviser pick, Jake Sullivan, to right the ship in the region.

Blinken, a veteran diplomat and former point man on promoting trilateralism between Washington and its allies in Seoul and Tokyo, is widely expected to devote significant attention to the South Korea-Japan relationship, among other things, after the two neighbors saw bilateral ties deteriorate over history and trade issues during the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

A former top national security adviser to Biden, Blinken, 58, is so close to the president-elect that he has been described as his “alter ego,” a signal that he will have the ear of the incoming president — and all of the sway that comes with that.

“It’s almost as if Joe Biden selected himself as secretary of state in choosing Tony Blinken — or at least a very close approximation,” said Alexis Dudden, an expert on the Koreas and Japan at the University of Connecticut.

Sullivan, who also held top positions in the State Department and White House under President Barack Obama, is likely to be eyeing ways to bring like-minded U.S. allies such as Japan closer after four years of Trump’s “America First” push.

Though Sullivan is known for his work on the Middle East, Biden was quick to note in a speech last month announcing his pick that he had “played a key role in the Asia-Pacific ‘rebalance’” under Obama. The move was seen as yet another sign of the new administration’s expected focus on the region.

Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's choice to be his national security adviser, speaks as Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. | REUTERS
Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to be his national security adviser, speaks as Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. | REUTERS

At 43, Sullivan will be one of America’s youngest national security advisers ever, though Biden has praised him as “a once-in-a-generation intellect with the experience and temperament for one of the toughest jobs in the world.”

Restoring American credibility in Asia will be a significant part of that job, observers say.

Alliance priorities

While Trump has touted his hard line against China on trade and security, as well as the lack of long-range missile and nuclear tests by North Korea under his watch over the last two years, the outgoing U.S. president has also repeatedly asserted that Japan and South Korea have been taking advantage of Washington, pressing them over the costs associated with hosting American troops and over what he lambasted as “unfair” trade agreements. Trump has also torn up key multilateral agreements and bolted from or ignored global and regional institutions, much to the chagrin of Asian partners.

The moves have left something of a leadership vacuum that Beijing has been more than willing to attempt to fill — one of Japan’s biggest fears.

The Biden camp has attempted to assuage these fears by singling out U.S. alliances as crucial to American interests going forward.

“(Biden) puts like-minded democratic allies at the heart of his foreign policy, in every important dimension,” Sullivan said in September. “He believes that that is the platform that the United States can most effectively deal both with great power competition and the range of transnational challenges and with setting the terms and the rules of the road on everything from artificial intelligence to international economics.

“Allies are going to have pride of place in the hierarchy of priorities in a Biden administration foreign policy,” Sullivan said in the interview with Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank.

It’s unclear if Blinken and Sullivan will be able to lead a rebound for Washington — especially as it grapples with its own domestic concerns like the raging coronavirus pandemic. But some observers say their experience will bring a certain measure of relief to governments in Asia.

“We know Blinken and Sullivan have focused on the Middle East more than on Asia, yet the fact that they have had careers in diplomacy and security is reassuring against the backdrop of the past four years,” said Dudden.

Indeed, top Japanese officials have singled out Blinken’s record as a bright spot, with his counterpart-to-be, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, expressing an eagerness to work together as soon as possible.

“He has a deep insight about foreign policy and has contributed to strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Motegi said last month, vowing to set up a call with him as soon as Blinken is confirmed by the Senate.

Biden transition officials who are likely to have a voice in forming the administration’s Asia policy declined comment for this story.

South Korea-Japan row

When it comes to the dispute between Japan and South Korea, officials in both countries have publicly remained sanguine about the prospects of some form of a truce but recognize that getting there will be a tremendous challenge — far more of one than when the U.S. last prodded its two allies to shake off the past and move forward together.

Neither side has budged from their stances on South Korean court proceedings to seize and liquidate Japanese firms’ assets as reparations for South Koreans forced to work against their will during Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule. Seoul and Tokyo have both sent a number of emissaries to their respective capitals since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office, but these moves have had little effect in improving the soured ties, with the issue of compensation over wartime labor proving to be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Much to Washington’s consternation, the row has resulted in a spate of tit-for-tat measures, including a threat by Seoul to leave a key U.S.-brokered military intelligence-sharing pact known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) last year. The pact plays an important role in the quick sharing of regional intelligence and is crucial to monitoring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

That issue, while on the backburner at the moment, could re-emerge at any time and will be one of the challenges faced by Biden officials — especially if Pyongyang again begins lobbing long-range missiles over and around Japan and South Korea.

Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of state, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. | ANNA MONEYMAKER / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. | ANNA MONEYMAKER / THE NEW YORK TIMES

But Blinken’s long history of working with the two U.S. allies could provide him with an advantage in helping salvage the neighbors’ relations.

He played a crucial role in jump-starting bilateral efforts between Japan and South Korea to end a particularly difficult episode of estrangement in 2015 and, during his time as deputy secretary of state, was responsible for initiating the first-ever trilateral consultations at that level on global areas for cooperation between the three allies.

That history could provide some measure of cover for the U.S. playing an enhanced role in bridging the gaps.

Seoul has complained that the current U.S. administration played favorites in the GSOMIA row, in particular, taking the side of Trump’s golf buddy and Suga’s predecessor, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“The dirty secret in Washington is that Tokyo had a lot of influence over Trump administration opinions about Asia policy,” said Van Jackson, a former senior defense official for Korea policy in the Obama White House. “That won’t be the case in the Biden administration.”

Still, he said, Biden’s decisions on Asia “will be good for Japan and will involve extensive consultation.”

Whatever the case, few believe an attempt by Washington to interject itself into the row as a mediator can truly root out the long-held animosity between the two. This will likely have to involve give and take between the two U.S. allies.

“The problem is that the United States can’t change the basic conflict and antagonism between Japan and South Korea,” said Jackson. “We can buffer that friction; we can’t eliminate it.”

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