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Blinken, Austin to shore up Japan, South Korea alliances on first travel

By AFP - Mar 10,2021 - Last updated at Mar 10,2021

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will together visit Japan and South Korea next week as President Joe Biden shores up alliances in the face of China on his administration's first foreign travel.

The joint trip, confirmed on Wednesday by the State Department after it was reported in the two countries, will start several days after Biden holds a virtual summit with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India.

Blinken said on Twitter that he looked forward to the trip "as we work to promote peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world".

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the travel aimed to "reaffirm the United States' commitment to strengthening our alliances".

The Biden team has been deliberately hesitant to start the flurry of international trips that traditionally herald a new administration as it tries to set an example by discouraging travel in its bid to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blinken had his first foreign "trip" on February 25 as he met virtually with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada, complete even with a videotaped crossing of the border into Mexico.

The choice of the two Asian allies for the first in-person trip comes as the Biden administration makes clear that managing and often confronting a rising China is its top priority.

The South China Morning Post reported that senior Chinese officials are prepared to fly to Alaska — traditionally a refueling stop for the secretary of state on trips to Asia — for talks on the state of relations between the Pacific powers. 

The State Department declined to comment on whether there were any plans to meet Chinese officials.

In a speech last week, Blinken called China "the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century" as it alone can "seriously challenge the stable and open international system" and he vowed to put alliances first in the US strategy.


Easing tensions 

with allies 


Biden and Blinken, both known as Europhiles, have also moved quickly to ease tensions with European allies that soared during Donald Trump's turbulent presidency.

The United States and European Union declared a ceasefire in a bitter trade dispute over aircraft subsidies and Biden has sharply reversed course from Trump by backing diplomacy on Iran and climate change — with Biden's climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, on a trip this week to Europe.

Blinken and Austin will start their trip in Tokyo on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week for joint meetings with their Japanese counterparts.

The top US diplomat, appearing virtually even while in Tokyo, will also address Japanese business leaders and journalists and highlight "the role of a free press in promoting good governance and defending democracy”, Price said.

Media advocates say that conditions for a free press have deteriorated in recent years in parts of the world, including some US allies.

In Seoul, Blinken and Austin will again meet jointly with their counterparts and Blinken will similarly speak virtually with South Korean youth and journalists, Price said.

Blinken will also discuss an ongoing review of US policy toward North Korea in the wake of former president Donald Trump's splashy summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The Trump administration said that the summits stopped North Korea's missile and nuclear tests but they failed to produce any lasting agreement.

The Biden administration is likely to support continued diplomacy but to depersonalise the relationship amid concern that Trump legitimised one of the world's most authoritarian leaders.


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