China and the US: A Competitive Relationship (2)

March 20, 2021

No one hoped for a breakthrough at the US-China talks in Anchorage. And only a few might have expected the talks to start with such an exchange of sharp rebukes. After all this was the first high-level meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese officials.

Before meeting their Chinese counterparts, Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held talks with their counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul. This was the first cabinet-level overseas travel of the Biden administration. Japanese Prime Minister Suga will be the first foreign leader to visit Washington in April for a summit meeting.

As the talks started in Tokyo, President Joe Biden agreed during an ABC News interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “killer” adding that he will “pay” for interfering in the 2020 presidential election.

A few days before the Tokyo visit the US State Department published a fact sheet titled “Reaffirming the Unbreakable U.S.-Japan Alliance”.[i] Here are some of those facts:

“With over $300 billion worth of goods and services exchanged each year, the United States and Japan are top trading partners… The United States’ commitment to the defense of Japan is absolute. The United States affirms the Senkaku Islands fall within the scope Article V of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and we remain opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea or undermine Japan’s administration of these islands. Japan hosts approximately 55,000 U.S. service members – the largest contingent of U.S. forces outside the United States…. Many of the United States’ most capable and advanced military assets are hosted in Japan, including the USS Ronald Reagan and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter…”

Interestingly, like article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of January 19, 1960, is also a commitment to joint defense in case of armed attack.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

The Article V of the US-Japan Treaty says, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes…”

For understandable reasons, the former is a more explicit, stronger commitment. Nonetheless, considering that the Second World War surrender of Imperial Japan was announced on August 15, 1945, the signing of the Treaty in 1960 was a remarkable development.

Through the Joint Statement[ii] and at their joint press conference[iii], the four Secretaries/Ministers targeted China and North Korea.  Foreign Minister Motegi said that the two sides reconfirmed the strong commitment of the United States regarding defense of Japan using all types of US forces including nuclear.

In brief, Japan and the US reaffirmed their mutual defense commitments and targeted China and North Korea in similar language.  They appeared to be on the same page. Thus, without changing its language, the two sides “updated” Article V of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan. This probably underlines Japan’s China worries, in particular the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute.

The fact sheet on Republic of Korea (ROK) titled, “Strengthening the Ironclad U.S.-ROK Alliance”[iv] defined the US-ROK Alliance as the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity for Northeast Asia, a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and across the world.

According to the fact sheet, the US is the ROK’s second largest trading partner, and the ROK is the United States’ sixth largest trading partner. The United States is the second largest investor in the Republic of Korea. ROK is the second-largest Asian source of foreign direct investment into the United States.

More than two million ROK citizens visit, work, or live in the United States, and over 200,000 U.S. citizens reside in the ROK.

The United States maintains forces on the Korean Peninsula in support of its commitment under the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty to help meet the common danger posed by external threats.

In Seoul, before his meeting with Secretary Blinken, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong told the press that the Korea-US Alliance is the backbone of Korean diplomacy as well as the linchpin of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and across the world.[v] He mentioned neither North Korea nor China. 

Secretary Blinken referred to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program as a threat to the region and to the world.  He said China is using 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. 

At the joint press availability of the four ministers,[vi] Minister Chung said that during the talks both sides confirmed that the North Korea nuclear program is the most immediate issue. He added that in order to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue in a peaceful manner, the best diplomatic efforts will be made based on the solid security base. He also said that in the process of review process of the North Korea by the US, as well as the implementation period, a fully coordinated strategy will be the base of US-ROK cooperation. He did not mention China.

Secretary Blinken reiterated US’ commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea. He said, “We also discussed China… Beijing’s actions make forging a common approach among our allies all the more important at a time when we’re seeing a rollback of democracy and human rights around the world…”

Secretary Austin called the long-term strategic competition, mainly with China, his department’s “pacing challenge” in the years ahead.

In response to questions regarding ROK joining QUAD and if there was a request from the US for a combined military exercise or intelligence sharing with the Quad members, Minister of Defense Suh responded that there was no direct discussion about Korea joining Quad and no such request from the US.  

Secretary Blinken took the occasion to draw attention to China’s unique relationship with North Korea and the critical role it can play in convincingNorth Korea to pursue denuclearization.

Throughout the press conference, ROK Ministers did not mention China.

According to the Joint Statement of the 2021 Republic of Korea – United States Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2+2”)[vii], the two sides reaffirmed a mutual commitment to the defense of the ROK and to the strengthening of the ROK-U.S. combined defense posture, consistent with the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty. They emphasized that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs are a priority issue for the Alliance.

They said, “Against the backdrop of increasing challenges to the regional security environment, the shared values of the ROK-U.S. Alliance undergird the two countries’ commitment to opposing all activities that undermine and destabilize the rules-based international order.” Again, China was not mentioned, revealing perhaps differences between Washington and Seoul on how to engage China.

Following the talks in Anchorage Secretary Blinken told the press that there are a number of areas where the US and China are fundamentally at odds, including China’s actions in Xinjiang, with regard to Hong Kong, Tibet, increasingly Taiwan, as well as actions China has taken in cyberspace.[viii] He added that it was no surprise that when these issues were raised clearly and directly, the US side got a pensive response; that they were also able to have a very candid conversation over an expansive agenda including Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change where interests intersect.

China-US relationship could and should have made a better beginning after four years of disarray in Washington. President Biden’s labelling of Russia as the “biggest threat” to US security, and China the “biggest competitor” is unlikely to find many followers.

President Biden needs to tackle his domestic political and economic agenda before launching major foreign policy initiatives. He needs to restore faith in American democracy, address the problem of racism. He and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled on Friday to Atlanta to express grief for the victims of a mass shooting that left eight people dead including six women of Asian descent. There, Mr. Biden said, “It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives.” Vice President Harris said, “Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too.”

Throughout the visits to Japan and Korea, the US side underlined the importance of the rules-based order that maintains global stability. Looking back at the last two decades of military interventions, regime change projects, who can reasonably say that the world had a rules-based order?

The foregoing is only a summary of Secretary Blinken’s and Secretary Austin’s trip to Japan and Korea ahead of their talks in Anchorage. For me, this was a welcome distraction from Turkey’s extremely depressive domestic and foreign policy agenda.

For readers looking for an in-depth analysis of the China-US relationship, I would strongly recommend Ambassador Chas W. Freeman’s (USFS, Ret.) “Playing at War Games with China,  Remarks to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs”:

I was lucky to get to know Ambassador Freeman when our paths crossed in Riyadh.










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