Mon, December 06, 2021

in-focus

Biden team slams China claims in swift calls to Asia allies


President Joe Biden and his team staked out early opposition to Chinese territorial claims in a series of calls to Asian allies, as Beijing warned that trying to contain the country was "mission impossible."

Biden reaffirmed in a telephone call with the Japanese prime minister the U.S.'s commitment to defend uninhabited islands controlled by Japan and claimed by China that have been a persistent point of contention between the Asian powerhouses. Meanwhile, newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected Chinese territorial claims in a call with his Philippine counterpart and emphasized U.S. alliances in talks with top Australian and Thai officials.

While some observers had anticipated a ratcheting down of U.S.-China tensions under Biden, the series of calls didn't indicate any softening of security policies in Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this week called for the world to abandon "ideological prejudice" and shun an "outdated Cold-War mentality" as he signaled in his first international address since Biden entered the White House that Beijing would continue to forge its own path regardless of criticism.

Over the weekend, China sent an early warning to the new U.S. administration by flying 13 warplanes into the Taiwan Strait. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian told a regular news briefing Thursday that trying to contain China was "mission impossible" and urged the U.S. military to use the "new starting point" to bring relations back on track.

Biden's pledge to Japan, which was made in his first call since taking office with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, poses the risk of the U.S. becoming embroiled in any potential conflict arising in the dispute between China and Japan, the U.S.'s biggest ally in Asia. Suga and Biden spoke in the early hours of Thursday Japan time, according to a statement issued by Foreign Ministry.

"President Biden expressed his unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan, including the application of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the Senkaku islands," the ministry said. Biden also expressed a commitment to "extended deterrence," both governments said, a term that refers to the potential use of nuclear weapons to defend an ally.

Vessels from Japan and China often come into close contact around the East China Sea islands -- called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China -- raising concerns of a bigger confrontation. China this month passed a law allowing its coastguard vessels to fire on foreign ships, in a development that could ratchet up tensions with several of its Asian neighbors.

The White House said in its statement that Biden and Suga discussed "the United States' unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan," specifying that this covers the Senkaku islands. Japan, whose pacifist constitution limits the activities of its military, seeks regular assurances from the U.S. -- its only defense ally. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have made similar comments on island defense in talks with their Japanese counterparts in recent days.

Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was approaching its relationship with Beijing with "patience" and plans to review hard-line policies that were a hallmark of Donald Trump's presidency.

Blinken told Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin the U.S. rejects China's maritime claims in the South China Sea if they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted under international law, and pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of Chinese pressure. Malaysia and Vietnam are among other countries embroiled in similar disputes with China, which claims about 80% of the resource-rich South China Sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed its claims to territory in the East and South China seas in response to questions Thursday about the U.S. diplomatic calls. "We hope non-regional countries will fully respect China and regional countries' efforts to properly handle maritime differences and disputes and safeguard peace and stability," ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing.

Blinken also discussed with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai the importance of working together to "advance our shared prosperity, security, and values across the free and open Indo-Pacific region."

In a call with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Blinken reaffirmed his commitment to the so-called Quad. This is a grouping of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan that became elevated under the Trump administration and has been admonished by China as a "clique" that could stoke a new Cold War.

Published : January 29, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Isabel Reynolds