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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made their debut on the global stage Tuesday in talks with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo that singled out China for the first time over its behavior and set the tone for the direction of the alliance.

In the first Cabinet-level trip abroad by members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, Blinken and Austin met with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi for “two-plus-two” security talks that focused on China, which Blinken has called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”

“China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken said at a news conference following the meeting.

The United States and Japan, he added, are united in their vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and “will push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way.”

In a joint statement released after the meeting, the two allies took aim at China’s growing assertiveness, saying that it “presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community,” while voicing a commitment to “opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region.”

Tokyo has been most concerned with Beijing’s ramped-up activities in the waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The strategically positioned but uninhabited islets, which sit in waters rich in fishing stocks and gas deposits, are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.

A Japan Coast Guard ship (right) sails next to a China Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands on Feb. 15 in a photo taken by Ishigaki Assemblyman Hitoshi Nakama. | KYODO
A Japan Coast Guard ship (right) sails next to a China Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands on Feb. 15 in a photo taken by Ishigaki Assemblyman Hitoshi Nakama. | KYODO

Although Japan has looked to balance its security concerns with its deeply entangled economic ties to its Asian neighbor, there is a growing appetite in Tokyo for a strong response to China’s moves near the Senkakus after Beijing sent government vessels near the islands on a record 333 days last year.

Tuesday’s joint statement reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, which says that the United States will defend territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack. But it also criticized a more pressing issue for Japan — a Chinese law that empowers its coast guard to fire on foreign ships it claims to have illegally entered its waters, transforming it into a virtual second navy and giving rise to concerns of a miscalculation exploding into a broader conflict.

In the statement, the two sides “expressed serious concerns about recent disruptive developments in the region, such as the China Coast Guard law.”

The Japanese government has questioned the legality of the law, and said in turn that its coast guard could directly fire weapons at foreign vessels aiming to land on the Senkakus, based on its interpretation of domestic laws.

The decision to directly criticize China by naming it in the two-plus-two statement now thrusts Sino-Japanese ties into a new dimension as Washington and Tokyo’s views on the security risk posed by Beijing coalesce.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left), U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left), Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (second from right) and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attend the
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left), U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left), Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (second from right) and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attend the “two-plus-two” meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

“Tokyo is concerned about these activities, as they could disrupt sea lanes of communication and also lead to a ‘might is right’ Machiavellian approach to the order in the Indo-Pacific,” said Stephen Nagy, an expert on Asian geopolitics at International Christian University in Tokyo.

But despite the “unusual” and strong statement, Nagy said Tokyo understands that its economic sustainability in the near to midterm is wedded to China and there are limits to how much pressure it can apply without retaliation.

“This is why Tokyo consistently engages with China through trade agreements … while strengthening the alliance, (bolstering relations with) its strategic partners such as Australia and India at the bilateral level and through the ‘Quad,’ and by enmeshing itself in multilateral agreements,” Nagy said, referring to the four-nation grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. that is seen as a counterweight to China’s rise.

But the officials may also have found themselves distracted by a more immediate challenge than China: nuclear-armed North Korea.

Ahead of the Tokyo meeting, the powerful sister of the country’s leader warned the U.S. and South Korea over ongoing joint military drills, in the first remarks by a high-level regime official aimed at the Biden administration.

“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (a gunpowder) smell in our land,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Yo Jong as saying. “If it wants to sleep in peace for (the) coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”

Her warning came as the U.S. State Department revealed it had reached out to Pyongyang “through several channels” starting in mid-February “to reduce the risk of escalation” ahead of a government-wide policy review regarding North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signs a guest book as his sister, Kim Yo Jong, looks on during an inter-Korean summit at the Peace House building on South Korea's side of the truce village of Panmunjom in April 2018. | KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signs a guest book as his sister, Kim Yo Jong, looks on during an inter-Korean summit at the Peace House building on South Korea’s side of the truce village of Panmunjom in April 2018. | KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, the Japanese and U.S. officials said they had discussed the North Korean issue, with Blinken voicing hopes ahead of his visit to Seoul from Wednesday of using trilateral cooperation on the nuclear issue as a stepping stone to improving ties.

“One feature of our own alliance is it provides the foundation for even broader cooperation,” Blinken said of U.S.-Japan ties. “My next stop is in Seoul, and I hope we can find ways to strengthen our trilateral cooperation, something I worked on when I was last in government.”

But getting the two U.S. allies on the same page may prove tricky, as the Seoul-Tokyo bilateral relationship has sunk to its lowest point in decades over trade and history issues.

Finding common ground may also prove difficult due to a cavernous gap in approaches to Pyongyang. Japan is eager to keep pressure on North Korea over its increasingly potent nuclear and missile programs, while South Korea is looking to ease sanctions to create openings for engagement with the isolated regime.

In a signal that the U.S. may be leaning more toward Japan’s tougher approach, the U.S. has begun using the harder-line phrasing “denuclearization of North Korea” in official documents — including Tuesday’s joint two-plus-two statement — rather than “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which was used during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Since entering the White House, the Biden administration has put revitalizing U.S. alliances at the forefront of its foreign policy, working to reassure Japan and others of its commitments after Trump’s “America First” policy stoked concern among partners in Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a virtual business roundtable at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a virtual business roundtable at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Speaking at the outset of one-on-one talks with Motegi earlier in the day, Blinken called the U.S.-Japan alliance “the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity, not only for our two countries, but for the region and indeed the world.”

“It is no accident that we chose Japan for the first Cabinet-level overseas travel for the Biden-Harris administration,” he said.

In the joint statement, the two allies vowed to bolster “close coordination to align security policy” amid “the increasingly serious regional security environment,” including deepened defense cooperation across all domains.

While lauding the recent one-year extension of a cost-sharing agreement for hosting U.S. forces, the two sides also instructed their negotiators to work toward a new multiyear agreement and called for another two-plus-two meeting later in the year.

Tuesday’s meeting, the first since 2019, came after less than 60 days in office for Biden — the quickest such meeting ever, according to the Foreign Ministry, which labeled the event “unprecedented.”

Following the talks, the two U.S. secretaries paid a visit to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga later in the evening. Suga is scheduled to visit Biden at the White House early next month, a trip that would make him the first foreign leader to meet with the new U.S. president.

On Wednesday, Blinken and Austin are scheduled to visit Seoul, where they will hold a similar meeting with South Korean officials.

After the trip to South Korea, Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan are slated to meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska on Thursday, the first meeting under Biden of senior U.S. and Chinese officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (center) at his office in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (center) at his office in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

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