Biden aides to hold first talks with China after visiting allies
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President Joe Biden's top aides will meet for the first time next week with Chinese officials in Alaska immediately on the heels of showing solidarity through trips to Asian allies wary of Beijing's might, the State Department said Wednesday.
With the Biden administration identifying China as the top US challenge, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, will hold talks in Anchorage on March 18 with their counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi.
The talks will come after Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin jointly visit both Japan and South Korea and as Austin separately heads on to India.
In a flurry of diplomacy, Biden will also on Friday hold a three-way virtual summit with the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan -- three nations deeply suspicious of China's growing influence.
Biden and Blinken have both already spoken by telephone with Chinese leaders, with Biden saying he pressed President Xi Jinping on human rights, trade and its regional assertiveness in an unusually long two-hour call last month.
The Alaska talks will be the first between the Pacific powers since Yang met Blinken's hawkish predecessor Mike Pompeo in June in Hawaii -- a setting similarly chosen to be away from the high-stakes glare of national capitals.
The Biden administration has generally backed the tougher approach to China initiated by former president Donald Trump but insisted that it can be more effective by shoring up alliances and seeking narrow areas for cooperation such as climate change.
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."
Signal to allies
Blinken said on Twitter that his trip to Japan and South Korea was part of efforts to "work to promote peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world."
The Biden team has been deliberately hesitant to start the hectic travel schedules 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 a bridge over the Rio Grande.
Biden and Blinken, both known as Europhiles, have also moved quickly to ease tensions with European allies that soared during 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 visit this week to Europe.
Blinken and Austin will start their trip in Tokyo on Tuesday 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," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Biden has pledged a renewed focus on democracy in the wake of Trump amid what advocates say is a deterioration of media freedom and democratic principles around the world.
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.
The Pentagon said Austin will meet Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and seek a deepening partnership in India, whose relations with China have worsened following a deadly Himalayan clash last year.
India, a fierce opponent of the Taliban, is also a key player as Biden decides whether to go ahead with Trump's agreement with the Islamist insurgents to pull all US troops from Afghanistan by May.
In Seoul, Blinken and Austin will also discuss Biden's review of US policy toward North Korea in the wake of Trump's splashy summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.