MELBOURNE, Australia — As Europe braces for the possibility of its biggest ground war in decades, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken took a 27-hour flight this week in the opposite direction.
On Friday, Mr Blinken met the foreign ministers of Australia, Japan and India at a summit in Melbourne of the four-nation coalition called the Quad. His message was clear: despite the crises in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, the United States is determined to strengthen its presence in Asia and to present a vision of the future different from that offered by China.
“Countries deserve the freedom to work together and partner with whoever they want,” Blinken said as he stood alongside other foreign ministers ahead of their Friday afternoon meeting. .
Australia is just the first of three stops for Mr Blinken, who is also due to meet foreign officials in Fiji and Hawaii. The week-long trip to the farthest reaches of Asia and the Pacific shows the intensity with which the Biden administration wants to signal that the vast region is the most important focus of its foreign policy.
In late January, Mr. Blinken had to shuttle diplomacy to Kiev and other European cities to deal with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Since then, President Vladimir V. Putin has continued to amass troops along the Russia-Ukraine border in what could be a deadly follow-up to his 2014 forced annexation of the Crimean peninsula and incursion. in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Blinken told an evening press conference in Melbourne after the ministers met that a Russian invasion could even happen before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, an event in which Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a lengthy joint statement. statement in which they declared that the partnership of the two nations had “no limits”.
“We continue to see very worrying signs of Russian escalation, including the arrival of new forces on the Ukrainian border,” Blinken said.
Although Mr. Blinken and some of his foreign counterparts discussed Russia and Ukraine, that was not the focus of their discussions. The Quad, which has gained momentum in recent years after its creation in 2007, is an important part of President Biden’s vision to counter China, which has a powerful economic presence in every corner of the world and a growing military footprint. in Asia and parts of the Indian Ocean.
The coalition is also seeking to address broad regional issues, and the ministers said they spoke on Friday about climate change, Covid-19 vaccines, the fight against terrorism, regional infrastructure and the crackdown in Myanmar, among other topics.
Mr Biden said he plans to strengthen traditional US alliances and partnerships and create new ones. It’s a stark contrast to the approach of the Trump administration, which in its “America First” zeal has created tension with partner nations on issues such as trade and defense financing.
Leaders of the Quad nations have viewed China’s actions with growing anxiety in recent years as Mr. Xi has grown more aggressive in his foreign policy.
China has continued to assert its territorial claims to the East China Sea islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, which administers the region. Chinese troops clashed with the Indian army along the two nations’ border in the Himalayas. And Beijing has engaged in what some Western officials call “influence operations” in Australia, including building ties with politicians in the country.
At the same time, all of these nations, as well as the United States, have deep economic ties with China, which presents a central dilemma in their relationship with the Asian superpower.
On the final leg of the 27-hour flight to Melbourne, after a refueling stop in Pago Pago, American Samoa, Mr Blinken told reporters he wanted to highlight the Biden administration’s work with the Quad because the group was “very representative of what we do in different ways around the world, which builds, energizes, leads different coalitions of countries focused on sometimes overlapping issues.
It’s a common refrain from Biden administration officials. Unlike their predecessors in the Trump administration, they say America’s strength comes from its alliances and partnerships, and that approach is more important than ever because of China’s enormous economic leverage.
Mr Blinken’s trip “underscores how important and challenging it is for Washington to stay focused on the Indo-Pacific,” said Charles Edel, Australian chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former planning official. policies at the State Department.
“The Quad was formed largely in response to China’s increasing use of military and economic coercion, and aims to prove that democracies can provide needed public goods in the region. There have been major successes this year – particularly around vaccine distribution – but now the work and success of the Quad depends on moving from the concept phase to coordination and delivery,” he said. added.
Australia, which the United States sees as a model of how smaller nations can resist a more aggressive China, has become particularly important to U.S. officials as a coalition cornerstone and regional defense and defense partner. of intelligence.
Unlike European nations, Australia’s ties to the United States grew stronger under the Trump administration, and this continued under the Biden administration. Last September, Mr Biden announced a new security pact with Australia and Britain called Aukus and said the US would help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines – a move that infuriated France, which had a lucrative deal with Australia to supply less advanced submarines. submarines.
Chinese officials said at the time that the trilateral pact was “extremely irresponsible” and “seriously undermines regional peace and escalates the arms race”.
On Wednesday, Global Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party, issued a similar note criticizing the ministers’ meeting in Melbourne. “The tone of the meeting of the four Quad foreign ministers scheduled for Friday in Australia is still based on ideological differences and a Cold War mentality,” he said in a post.
On Friday morning, Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, drew a sharp line between US influence in the region and that of China.
She said at the start of a meeting with Mr. Blinken that “more than one authoritarian regime presents itself in the current global climate as a challenge – the DPRK, China as well.” Ms Payne was using the official name of North Korea, an ally of China which has carried out an alarming number of missile tests in recent weeks.
“We strongly support American leadership on these challenges,” she added.
When leaders of the Quad nations met in Washington last September for their first-ever in-person meeting, the nations issued a statement listing seven major areas of cooperation: Covid-19 and global health assistance, infrastructure, climate change, people-to-people exchange and education, emerging technologies, cybersecurity and outer space.
The leaders had already said at a virtual summit in March that they would work together to deliver Covid-19 vaccines, and in September they said the goal was to donate 1.2 billion vaccine doses around the world, in addition to their commitments to a World Health Organization. vaccination program. At the time, they said they had delivered almost 79 million doses in the Asia-Pacific region.
“I think the most important thing is to maintain momentum on these topics,” said Susannah Patton, researcher and project director with the Power and Diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.
Ms Patton said Australia saw the Quad as further integrating the United States into a strategic role in the region and committing it to pursue what President Barack Obama called a “pivot to Asia”, away from the long and costly wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.
However, she said it was important for Washington to come up with a comprehensive plan for economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Obama had planned for the proposed 12-nation trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership to do just that, but President Donald J. Trump has blocked any U.S. role in the deal. And within the Democratic Party, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and other progressive politicians had denounced the pact, saying it would hurt American workers.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, when he was vice-president, argued that the pact would help raise environmental and labor standards across Asia and give member countries alternative trading partners to China, which was not a founding member.
Last September, with the United States absent from the trade agreement, China asked to join.