The Biden administration, like many previous US administrations, intended a foreign policy “pivot” toward China and Asia. Instead, Washington was confronted with a war in Gaza, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday for a regional tour in which he will try to reassert US influence in the Indo-Pacific against a rising China and reassure allies concerned that their concerns are being prioritized in Washington. Blinken is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from Australia, India, and Japan, whose countries, along with the United States, form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, an on-again, off-again group established as a counterbalance to Beijing.
Blinken told reporters traveling with him that the Biden administration has maintained a “sustained focus” on the region despite an all-consuming and urgent mission to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. He said he was on the phone in Ukraine consultations during the long flight from Washington to Australia — the latest of about 200 engagements in recent weeks — and acknowledged that video-conferences and phone calls between Washington and European capitals on the crisis would continue to hum in the background of the Melbourne talks.
According to Blinken, he and the Quad representatives will work on a “increasingly broad and deep agenda.” It will be dominated by what most other countries in the region see as Chinese aggression on land and sea, as well as other issues such as emerging technologies that Beijing may also threaten.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne welcomed Blinken’s and the other Quad ministers’ arrival, saying they were “voting with their feet in terms of the priority that they accord to [Indo-Pacific] issues” by gathering here.
Officials in the United States acknowledge that a pep talk is in order.
Blinken’s visit “will demonstrate the strength and credibility of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, ahead of the trip. “We intend to demonstrate that our partnerships deliver, and they deliver practical and real benefits to our own peoples and to the peoples of the region.”
Some in Asia expected more interaction with President Biden, who ran on a platform of “strategic competition” with China as a pillar of his foreign policy. The Obama administration promised a “pivot” to Asia as its diplomatic focus during Biden’s eight years as vice president.
Instead, as crises erupted all over the world, full-fledged engagement was postponed. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has declared himself a leader for life, has continued to assert Beijing’s sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea; pushed its massive “Belt and Road” initiative, which spends billions of dollars on development to gain influence in Europe, Africa, and Latin America; and ignored international criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority, which the U.S. has called a genocide.
This week, China again took the global center stage by hosting the Winter Olympics.
The United States and several Western countries did not send government delegations, but Russian President Vladimir Putin did, striking a masterfully symbolic pose with Xi as the leaders of a new post-democratic alliance. The two men issued statements in which they expressed their love for one another.
One potential flashpoint is China’s claim to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway republic in the same way that Putin regards post-Soviet Ukraine. Many analysts, however, believe that Xi would be unlikely to confront NATO – whose member nations represent a valuable market for China – with Putin-like force.
Despite its stated commitment to the region, the Biden administration appears to be still finding its footing in Asia policy, according to Michael Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Green credited the Trump administration with designating China as a strategic competitor, despite the fact that policy was not implemented. Biden “has picked up and amplified” that decision, but “has essentially no Asian economic strategy.”
Green mentioned the issues raised by Blinken and others, such as emerging technologies and digital, trade and supply chains, but stated that the response thus far has been “content-free.”
Following the talks in Australia, Blinken will travel to Fiji to meet with several Pacific Island leaders, and then to Honolulu to meet with South Korean officials.