Biden administration looks to revive 'Asia pivot'

Like Trump and Obama, Joe Biden wants to place more emphasis on power competition in Asia and less on Middle East

(FILES) In this file photo US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses reporters during his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 27, 2021.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on January 31, 2021 condemned Russian authorities for their "harsh" response to protests across the country that called for the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. "The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight," Blinken said on his official Twitter account.
 / AFP / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the Biden administration’s emphasis on great power competition with China and Russia, criticising their human rights records on Monday.

The administration's sharp emphasis on China, coupled with a recent White House downsizing of its National Security Council team devoted to the Middle East, indicate that President Joe Biden hopes to focus more on Asia.

It suggests that he wants to avoid the protracted Middle East military conflicts that have plagued his predecessors. Yet, he warned that Iran's unremitting efforts to build a nuclear bomb pose "a real problem".

"Based on public reports, the time that it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is down to, we think, a few months," Mr Blinken told MSNBC News.

"The agreement, the infamous JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], pushed that to beyond a year. So that’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that could get more acute, because if Iran continues to lift some of these restraints imposed by the agreement, that could get down to a matter of weeks."

He warned that Iran is getting closer to the point where it would be either a threshold nuclear power or a nuclear power.

"That is profoundly against our interests," Mr Blinken said.

China posed the most significant challenge to the US of any other country in Asia, Mr Blinken said.

“But it’s a complicated one. There are adversarial aspects to the relationship. There are certainly competitive ones and there are still some co-operative ones, too," he said.

“But whether we’re dealing with any of those aspects to the relationship, we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness.

"And that strength I think comes from having strong alliances – something China does not have – actually engaging in the world and showing up in these international institutions.”

Mr Blinken's remarks came after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan downsized the National Security Council staff for the Middle East while expanding staff for Asia, which Politico reported last week.

Under the new structure, the Indo-Pacific director Kurt Campbell oversees three deputies: Laura Rosenberger for China, Sumona Guha for South Asia and Andrea Kendall-Taylor for Russia and Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the Middle East director Brett McGurk only has one deputy: Barbara Leaf, the former ambassador to the UAE.

Former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama had also hoped to direct more attention on Asia and less on military quagmires in the Middle East.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton famously called this policy the US “pivot to Asia".

And under Mr Trump, the Pentagon’s national defence strategy called for a primary focus on “great power competition” with China and Russia.

But he and Mr Obama found it difficult to make that vision a reality as the US was drawn further into Middle East military conflicts after the Arab uprisings, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Tension in the Arabian Gulf also increased sharply after Mr Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran and his withdrawal from Mr Obama’s nuclear deal.

Mr Blinken repeated that Mr Biden would re-enter the nuclear deal should Iran return to its obligations under the accord.

He confirmed that the Biden administration was reviewing the US-Saudi relationship “to make sure that partnership is being conducted in a way that’s consistent with our interests and also with our values".

And while Mr Blinken called Saudi Arabia “an important partner for us in counter-terrorism", he said in his Senate confirmation hearing last month that Mr Biden intended to end US support for the campaign against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

China does not have military presence in the Middle East comparable to the US, but Beijing has a large presence throughout the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Beijing imports about 40 per cent of its crude oil supplies from the Middle East.

Mr Blinken said that the US should make sure “that our military is postured so that it can deter Chinese aggression”, while calling Beijing out for a myriad human rights breaches.

His criticism of Russia also focused on human rights, namely Moscow's detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the suppression of protesters supporting him.

Mr Blinken said the Biden administration was “deeply disturbed by his violent crackdown against people exercising their rights to protest peacefully against their government".

He said the US government was reviewing whether to place more sanctions on Russia over Mr Navalny’s detention, interference in US elections, the SolarWinds hack and placing bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration's first test of its commitment to Asia and emphasis on human rights came on Monday after Myanmar's military staged a coup against democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior politicians.

The coup prompted a statement from Mr Biden, who threatened to reinstate US sanctions on Myanmar.

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