The US and Japan warned Beijing against “coercion and destabilising behaviour” on Tuesday after top-level diplomatic and defence talks aimed at bolstering their alliance against rising Chinese influence.
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and top US diplomat Antony Blinken are on their first overseas trip, which began Monday in Japan, looking to shore up regional alliances and send a message to Beijing.
They will continue on to South Korea, and a policy review by the new administration of its approach to Pyongyang is also a key part of the diplomatic outreach.
But discussions in Tokyo focused on China, including its increasing presence around islands disputed with Japan, as well as the situation in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In a joint statement, the US officials and their Japanese counterparts warned that “China’s behaviour, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges”.
“The ministers committed to opposing coercion and destabilising behaviour towards others in the region,” they added.
“We’re united in a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, where countries follow the rules, cooperate wherever they can and resolve their differences peacefully,” Blinken said at a joint press conference.
“We will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way,” he added.
No comment on Pyongyang remarks
Issues from the coup in Myanmar to the way forward with North Korea were also on the table.
Blinken accused the military in Myanmar of “attempting to overturn the results of a democratic election”, saying it was “brutally repressing peaceful protesters”.
But he declined to comment on the latest bombastic pronouncement from North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Un’s sister earlier Tuesday warned Washington against “struggling to spread the smell of gunpowder on our land from across the ocean”.
The joint statement called again for Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearisation” warning North Korea’s arsenal “poses a threat to international peace and stability”.
Blinken said Washington was still examining “whether various additional pressure measures could be effective, whether there are diplomatic paths that make sense” as it reviews US policy on the issue.
“We reached out to the North Korean government through several channels, starting in mid-February, including in New York. To date we have not received a response from Pyongyang,” he added.
“This follows over a year without active dialogue with North Korea, despite multiple attempts by the United States to engage.”
President Joe Biden’s decision to dispatch the two top officials to Asia has been interpreted as evidence of the administration’s determination to set the agenda with Beijing.
Even before Blinken and Austin set out, they made clear in a joint opinion piece that countering Beijing’s moves in the region would be top of their agenda.
“Together, we will hold China accountable,” they wrote in the Washington Post.
“If we don’t act decisively and lead, Beijing will.”
The joint statement issued Tuesday specifically references the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” though Austin declined to comment on whether he agreed with a recent US assessment that China could invade the island within six years.
“In terms of the specific timeline of China, I won’t get involved in any kind of hypotheticals,” he said.
“My job is to make sure that we are as ready, as fast as we can possibly be to face any challenge that would face us or the alliance,” he added.
The ministers also specifically referenced the increasing Chinese presence in the waters around the Senkaku islands, known in Beijing as the Diaoyu islands.
The disputed islets are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, and Japan has voiced repeated protests over Chinese boats around the islands, as well as a new Chinese law involving the area.
The statement expressed “serious concerns about recent disruptive developments in the region”, including the law, warning that both sides would oppose “any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo or to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands”.
“The (Chinese) Coast Guard activity around the Senkaku islands is a clear violation of international law,” added Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi.
“The US side reconfirmed their commitment to our country’s defence of the Senkaku islands.”
Blinken and Austin are in Asia after a key summit between leaders of the Quad alliance, which groups the US, Australia, Japan and India, and Austin will continue to New Delhi after Seoul.
Blinken will hold talks with Chinese officials in the United States after his stop in Seoul.