US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Australia with the aim of shoring up Indo-Pacific partnerships and countering China’s growing power, even as a crisis with Russia over Ukraine escalates.
Blinken, who landed in Melbourne on Wednesday, is expected to spend three days in Australia.
He will attend on Friday a meeting with the foreign ministers of the “Quad” grouping, a US-led bloc that includes Australia, Japan and India, and was set up to counter China’s military and economic clout.
Blinken will then head to Fiji to meet a number of Pacific island leaders, many of whom are being wooed by China.
“The key message that the secretary will take with him on this trip is that our partnerships deliver,” said Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink.
“The Quad is a key component of US foreign economic and security policy in the Indo-Pacific region … It’s through this partnership that we’re strengthening the security environment in the region to push back against aggression and coercion.”
Marise Payne, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, said the Quad ministers will focus on vaccine distribution in the region, cyber- and critical technology, countering malicious disinformation, counterterrorism, security and climate change.
“As a network of liberal democracies we are committed to very practical cooperation and ensuring that all Indo-Pacific nations – large and small – are able to make their own strategic decisions and make those decisions free from coercion,” she told Australia’s ABC radio.
While China is expected to top Blinken’s agenda at the Quad, the growing relationship between Beijing and Moscow will also be a topic for discussion, according to US officials.
The issue is particularly pertinent for the US, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin having declared a “no limits” strategic partnership during their recent meeting at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
In their joint statement, the two leaders pledged mutual protection of core interests – an apparent reference to Russia and Ukraine as well as China and Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.
The statement also denounced US moves to counter China through AUKUS, a pact under which the US and UK will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
The strengthening of relations between China and Russia comes as the two countries’ ties with the US and the West worsen over a number of issues.
US-Chinese ties are at their lowest point in decades, with the two superpowers disagreeing on issues ranging from Hong Kong to the South China Sea and China’s treatment of ethnic Muslims. Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops on its borders with Ukraine – the most serious threat of a major conflict in Europe since the Cold War – only complicates matters.
US officials say they expect Blinken’s meeting with his Quad counterparts to help set the agenda for a summit of the group’s leaders in Japan, expected sometime mid-year.
After Australia and Fiji, Blinken is expected to travel to Hawaii to meet his Japanese and South Korean counterparts and discuss concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
“Countering the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remains a top priority for the United States and I am confident the same can be said for our Japanese and South Korean partners,” Kritenbrink said of the talks planned for Honolulu.
“We have made clear many times that we remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions to achieve that end and to make tangible progress. We have reached out repeatedly to Pyongyang; however, to date, we have not received a substantive response,” he said.