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In Japan, top Biden administration officials attempt to set the tone on China

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives at Yokota Air Base in Japan on Monday. (Sylvie Lanteaume/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — President Biden’s secretary of state and defense secretary began a multi-nation tour in Asia with a stop in Japan as they seek to address concerns about China with allies and partners in the region, and with Beijing directly.

The visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mark the first overseas travel for both Cabinet officials since joining the Biden administration and come as the Pentagon under Biden has taken to calling China the “pacing threat” for the United States.

Blinken and Austin will meet with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, on Tuesday before moving on to South Korea. Austin then plans a stop in India, while Blinken will meet with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and its top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Anchorage.

Combined, the visits are meant to set an early tone for the Biden administration for its dealings in the Pacific, as the president seeks to reorient the United States away from 20 years of war with radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. Already, that is proving difficult, with senior Afghan and U.S. military officials warning that a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this spring, as previously planned under the Trump administration, could lead to a disintegration of security and an al-Qaeda resurgence.

Blinken and Austin said in a joint opinion piece published by The Washington Post on Sunday evening that they are “now making a big push to revitalize our ties with friends and partners.” They described Japan and South Korea as close friends with the United States who support democratic values and “strategize together on how to confront shared threats such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.” Both have a history of conflict with China.

The op-ed also raised concerns about China’s behavior.

“As countries in the region and beyond know, China in particular is all too willing to use coercion to get its way. Here again, we see how working with our allies is critical,” Blinken and Austin wrote. “Our combined power makes us stronger when we must push back against China’s aggression and threats.”

They added: “Together, we will hold China accountable when it abuses human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, systematically erodes autonomy in Hong Kong, undercuts democracy in Taiwan or asserts maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law. If we don’t act decisively and lead, Beijing will.”

Austin did not take questions from media traveling with him on Sunday or on Monday as he arrived in Tokyo.

“Our goal is to make sure we have the capabilities and the operational plans and concepts to offer credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the U.S.,” Austin said in brief comments on Saturday.

The travel, carried out with numerous coronavirus tests along the way, comes after the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Phil Davidson, warned last week that China could try to take control of Taiwan within six years. Such a move would plunge the region into crisis.

“I’m worried that they’re accelerating their ambitions to be — to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do that by 2050,” Davidson said. “I’m worried about them moving that target closer.”

Davidson said he thinks “the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”

Official U.S. policy is that the United States acknowledges that China claims Taiwan as part of its country under the “One China” policy. But the United States remains one of Taiwan’s strongest allies, has supplied it with billions of dollars of weapons to defend itself and has said its commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid.”

On his way to Tokyo, Austin and his staff stopped overnight in Hawaii on Saturday, and Austin had dinner with Davidson before taking in a classified briefing at the admiral’s headquarters on Oahu on Sunday.

Davidson did not speak to the media, but other senior defense officials highlighted actions by China that have given them pause, even as it remains unclear what Beijing plans to do.

David Helvey, an acting assistant defense secretary focused on Pacific affairs, said that preparing for “Taiwan contingencies” has been a part of the focus of China’s military modernization for some time. “As their capabilities are increasing, obviously we are paying very careful attention to the military balance in the Taiwan Strait,” Helvey said.

One senior defense official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: “First off, I will admit that we don’t know China’s plans. And anyone who says they do is probably being a little disingenuous.”

But the official said that China’s actions, including rapidly building up its navy and declaring 2027 as a new milestone date for Chinese military readiness, could point to challenges sooner than later. The United States runs the “risk of falling into a misdirection” if it doesn’t take China’s buildup seriously and pays attention only to Beijing’s messaging, the official said.

A second senior defense official said that China also has regularly launched fighter jets near Taiwan, prompting Taiwan to scramble planes to respond. Doing so frequently, the official said, looks like an effort to burn out Taiwan’s air force.

But the officials acknowledged there also is risk in responding with too much American might.

“Militarily, we know that if we do too much and push too hard, China will use that optic and they’ll do more against Taiwan,” the second senior official said. “It’s a complex problem.”

In Japan, considered Washington’s “cornerstone” treaty ally in the region, about 50,000 U.S. troops are spread out on several bases, including Yokota Air Base, where U.S. officials landed Monday.

Questions about China’s intentions focus in part on the Senkaku Islands, a chain that is administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

A third senior defense official said there is “increased Chinese presence, both in terms of their military presence and coast guard presence” around the islands.

“That’s an important part of the conversation because we have treaty commitments with Japan,” the official said.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for Japan’s defense secretary.