US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have paid a working trip to Japan and the Republic of Korea this week, with the latter also going to visit India. It is no coincidence that Asia has been chosen as the first foreign destination by these senior members of Joe Biden administration's cabinet. Washington is indiscreet about the purpose of this visit – collective confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific region (IPR).
In Tokyo, Blinken and Austin attended the two-plus-two meeting of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, where the Japanese side was represented by Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. During the talks, the parties expressed serious concern about a legislation existing in China that entitles the country's coast guards to open fire on foreign ships for national sovereignty protection purposes. The two countries' ministers opposed any action by Beijing that undermines Japan's control over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu) in the East China Sea. The bare fact that the United States supports Japan in territorial disputes with China was particularly pleasing to Tokyo.
In the South Korean capital, Blinken and Austin presented Washington's stance on countering Beijing. This was discussed during their talks with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook. Throughout the conversation, the parties touched upon the two Koreas' relationship and Korean Peninsula denuclearization.
After Tokyo and Seoul, Foreign Minister Blinken set off home, while Pentagon Chief Austin went to India for negotiations with Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and other military officials due on March 19-21. This part of the top-ranking American official's Asian tour is of particular interest. The United States has no particular issues with Japan and South Korea that are its strategic allies in the region, but it's not all as easy as it sounds with India. New Delhi is just a partner of Washington, and this does not clearly work for the American side. As regards its confrontation with China, the United States would like to co-opt India, being an influential player in the IPR, and create a kind of "Asian NATO" under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) comprising Australia, India, the United States and Japan.
Apparently, a new military bloc in the IPR inclusive of India created to counter China will be one of Washington's key regional projects under President Biden. Should it happen, this will further aggravate the US-Chinese rivalry in the region. Beijing, be it noted, condemns QUAD project development, interpreting it as an attempt to create a "Pacific NATO" and having repeatedly avowed this. But Washington seems to be fine with these protests, stubbornly pounding away on the same line as before. Blinken and Austin's visits to Tokyo, Seoul, as well as the Pentagon head's trip to New Delhi are clear evidence of this.
In New Delhi, Lloyd Austin intends to discuss with his Indian colleagues ways to improve and expand cooperation under the defense partnership. According to experts, this interaction will include an expanded information exchange, regional security cooperation, arms and military equipment transfer, and extended contacts in new areas of military activity. This largely concerns the out-squeezing of Russian defense companies from the Indian arms market.
The Pentagon chief's visit to New Delhi should reveal Washington's intention to work with India across the board, including the military and political sphere. It is acknowledged that US military cooperation promises may prompt reconciliation following US sanctions imposed against Indian companies a while back and become an attempt to compensate for the damage India suffered because of former President Donald Trump.
Moreover, in order to bring New Delhi into the fold as regards countering Beijing, Washington exploits the long-standing contradictions between India and China, primarily their territorial disputes. However, there is more than meets the eye here. Especially given that present-day Russian-Chinese relations appear as a comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation, with New Delhi hardly wishing to upset relations with Moscow, as the two are bound by a longtime and abiding friendship. It is no secret that Moscow remains India's key supplier of cutting-edge weapons and, equally important, many technologies for their manufacture.
Let's bear in mind that India and China are members of the SCO and BRICS, which is also relevant in the two countries' relations. Moreover, India is unlikely willing to haul off its non-bloc foreign policy course to accommodate the United States. So, Washington still has more questions than answers in its relations with New Delhi and as regards involving India in the "Asian NATO".
At the same time, a good consensus exists among the experts that Blinken and Austin's tour to the region serves to send a signal of interest to the Chinese leadership about the current US administration's desire to engage with its allies, partners and fellow-thinkers to counter Beijing and create sort of an anti-Chinese buffer zone in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is quite understandable that the US has an eye toward the IPR: the region accounts for 60% of the world gross product and over two-thirds of global economic growth. Moreover, analysts suppose that the region will become home to the two-thirds of the world's population and two-thirds of the world economy in under a decade. With that in mind, China's growing influence in the region gets increasingly distressing to Washington and keeps it up at night.