Seoul, South Korea – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will make their first overseas trip on Monday as they visit key Asian allies Japan and South Korea for discussions likely to be dominated by questions of how to handle an ascendant China and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.

The two men will start their tour in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, on March 15 for so-called two-plus-two meetings, which will bring together the diplomatic and military leadership of the two countries. They will then head to South Korea’s Seoul on March 17. Afterwards, Blinken is expected to meet his Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Anchorage in the US state of Alaska.

Blinken and Austin’s east Asian tour comes on the heels of a breakthrough in talks on the sharing of costs for US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, an issue that had soured bilateral ties during the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The cost-sharing arrangements will stand Blinken and Austin in good stead as they seek to enlist Tokyo and Seoul’s support in countering threats from Beijing and Pyongyang.

Central to that effort is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an informal alliance between US, Japan, Australia and India that the four countries say is aimed at shoring up an “open and free Indo-Pacific”.

Underscoring the region’s significance in US foreign policy, US President Joe Biden, who took office on January 20, convened the first-ever leader-level summit of the Quad countries on Friday at which the leaders pledged in a statement to work closely together on COVID-19, climate change and security issues.

They did not explicitly name China, but took aim at Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region by declaring that the four countries “strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”. It also added that they would uphold international law in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with several of its neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. The statement also affirmed the group’s “commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea”.

Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper, citing government sources, said on Sunday that the meeting between Blinken, Austin and their Japanese counterparts would directly criticise China for what they call its attempts to alter the status quo in the disputed East and South China Seas.

‘Class-A enemy’

South Korea, however, is unlikely to get involved in the competition between the US and China or become a member of the Quad. Although the US is the country’s ultimate security guarantor – having intervened in the 1950-53 Korean war to defeat invading troops from the north – China is by far South Korea’s largest trading partner.

Beijing has previously used that economic clout to ramp up pressure on Seoul on issues it deemed a security threat.

In 2017, after South Korea’s decided to deploy a US missile defence system, known as THAAD or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, China imposed informal sanctions on South Korean businesses that rely on Chinese consumers, including its tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries.

“Once you join the Quad you become a class-A enemy from Beijing’s perspective,” Lee Seong-hyon, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies, at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, told Al Jazeera.

South Korea’s decision to deploy the THAAD system in 2017 raised anger at home and economic pressure from China [File: Kim Jun-beom/Yonhap via REUTERS]

While Japan considers China a greater threat than North Korea, Seoul’s biggest priority is Pyongyang and Beijing remains key to mitigating that threat.

“South Korea is strategically sandwiched between China and the United States,” said Daniel Bong, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korea Studies. But given Seoul’s constraints on Beijing, “the United States would be better off by focusing on South Korea maintaining a reliable deterrence against North Korea,” said Bong. In that way, Washington could aim for “a kind of division of labour”, working with Japan to counter China and with South Korea to counter North Korea, he added.

North Korea has not conducted nuclear tests in recent years but analysts caution that the Biden administration should not take that for granted.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, in January”s Workers Party congress, declared the US to be his country’s “principal enemy” and promised to expand his nuclear and ballistic missiles with the aim of “making a preemptive and retaliatory strike”. He also showcased what he claimed was the “world’s most powerful weapon“.

The onus to defuse tensions is now squarely on Washington, analysts say, particularly given the failure of the Trump-Kim diplomatic love affair following the collapse of the 2019 summit in Vietnam.

“The North Koreans have noted now on several occasions since the failure of the Hanoi summit that they have a declining belief that the nature of DPRK-US relations can actually change,” Stimson Center Senior Fellow Jenny Town told a round-table discussion on March 10, referring to North Korea by its official name.

For talks to resume, “the ball [is] in the US and South Korean courts,” she added.

Going nuclear

The Sejong Institute’s Lee says North Korea may already be a “de facto nuclear state” and that denuclearisation may no longer even be a realistic option.

The US and its allies are also considering how to resume talks with North Korea, which in January paraded its latest missiles and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says is continuing nuclear activities [File: KCNA via REUTERS]

The US “at some point should settle for a compromise just like Washington does with India and Pakistan – implicitly, but not officially, recognise North Korea as a nuclear state and have a very firm agreement with North Korea that they will not proliferate nuclear technology to other countries or terrorist groups,” Lee said.

Improving strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo could also help the US rein in North Korea. Despite the recent furore over a Harvard paper denying aspects of Japan’s war-time atrocities in South Korea, there could be an opportunity for the two states to close ranks – to the benefit of US interests – analysts say.

Yonsei’s Bong suggests the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo could be an opportunity to restart the stalled denuclearisation talks.

If the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in “shows an olive branch” to the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Moon could get “Japan’s support for using the Tokyo Olympic Games as a platform for another round of high diplomacy between North Korea and South Korea,” he said.

But even as the US seeks to bolster its ties with Japan and South Korea, there is longstanding public opposition in both countries to a strong alliance with Washington.

There are 55,000 US troops in Japan and a further 28,500 in South Korea.

The relocation of the US army base on Okinawa was pushed through during former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tenure despite intense criticism from local residents and the low-flying of US military aircraft continues to generate opposition on the island where roughly half of all US forces located in Japan are based.

In South Korea, a vocal peace movement also objects to the strengthening of US-South Korea military cooperation, which many view as a roadblock to improving relations with North Korea.

South Korea’s vocal peace movement held a demonstration last week against the new defence cost sharing agreement with the United States [Kim Chul-Soo/EPA]

“The large-scale military exercises, the strengthening alliance, and huge military build-up do not make for dialogue and negotiation in the near future,” Cheong Wook-sik, the director of Seoul’s Peace Network, told Al Jazeera.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Biden administration, as it wades through foreign policy reviews around the world amid the disarray and confusion wrought by Trump’s America First strategy, is to define, once again, US interests and values to its key allies.

It has already signalled its intention to cooperate with China in some areas – notably climate change and the pandemic. But it has also indicated the tough approach to alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang will continue.

“The US needs to be clear about what it wants to do with China, and then go around the Asian region with a sales pitch for this strategy,” said Sejong’s Lee.





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