NEW YORK -- When meeting with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan did not expect to make the headlines that all diplomats fear coming from an official engagement: "barbs," "chaos," "war of words," and, as some on social media called these particular talks in Alaska, "Rage in Anchorage."
But between them, Blinken and Pentagon counterpart Lloyd Austin accomplished a great deal on their first international trip as secretaries. "Two-plus-two" visits to estranged neighbors Japan and South Korea, a huddle with strategic partner India, and even a surprise appearance in Afghanistan, followed by a phone call with Pakistan's most powerful man, all show the U.S. pushing the envelope to work with friends and allies, both old and new, to outmaneuver China in the Indo-Pacific, with an eye on conflicts past and present.
1) Japan: Explicit diplomacy
The two secretaries' first stop in Asia was Tokyo. But right off the bat, the Americans got perhaps more than they had bargained for. Japan agreed to write into a joint statement a shared concern about "China's behavior," the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and objections to China's "unlawful maritime claims" in the South China Sea. These were all issues that Japan had been careful not to be so direct about in the past.
Jeffrey Hornung, a Washington-based political scientist at Rand Corp., expressed surprise at how explicitly the two sides talked about China. "In the 20 years that I've followed U.S.-Japan relations, I've never seen anything that explicit," Hornung said.
But put in the context of the full trip -- coming after the leaders' virtual meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, and before the contentious in-person meeting with China in Anchorage -- it showed that "the U.S. and Japan are very much on the same page," Hornung said.
Now comes the hard part. Japan hosts about 54,000 American troops and around 8,000 Department of Defense civilian and contractor employees, constituting the largest overseas contingent of the U.S. military. When Pentagon strategists sit down to formulate the Indo-Pacific section of the global posture review, they will look at Hawaii, Guam and Japan before anything else.
"Unlike the Korean Peninsula, where those forces are largely tied to the peninsula, U.S. forces in Japan are not tied to Japan and per Article 6 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, they are there for the peace and stability in the Far East," he said.
Hornung said he would not be surprised by potential requests for increased capabilities in Japan. Would this include a second aircraft carrier to be forward-deployed to the region? Or an increase in the army, which has only 2,000 soldiers forward-deployed?
Either way, with all four branches of the U.S. military -- army, navy, air force and marines -- present in the country, Japan offers the Pentagon a canvas on which to draw various options.
2) South Korea: Peninsular politics
From expressing his love for sundubu-jjigae soft-tofu stew to holding the first two-plus-two in five years, Blinken made clear that the Biden administration considers South Korea a key ally in the Indo-Pacific.
He had two notable wins. First, South Korea acknowledged the importance of trilateral cooperation with Japan -- no small feat, considering the bad blood between Tokyo and Seoul over historical issues.
Second, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong agreed to "harmonize" South Korea's own New Southern Policy with America's Indo-Pacific strategy. For a country that has been careful not to align with the Quad -- out of consideration to neighbor China -- this was half a step forward as well.
But Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the "gaps" between the U.S. and South Korea became evident over North Korea.
"The Biden administration is going to have to grapple with how it frames the issue of its objective of denuclearizing North Korea versus denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Snyder said. Asked specifically about this issue, Chung made clear that Seoul's preference was "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," which implies neither Pyongyang nor the U.S. military having nuclear capabilities there.
An American insistence that denuclearization focus on North Korea would dilute the administration's pledge to consult closely with allies, Snyder said.
"By the same token, if they go back to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, they may have to explain to Japanese colleagues why the formulation the government of Japan prefers has been set aside," he said.
3) China: Not a total disaster
Despite the verbal bullets that flew at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying laid out some positive takeaways from the meeting at Monday's regular media briefing.
Hua framed the Alaska exchange as an "important step" toward implementing the consensus previously reached by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, in maintaining dialogue and avoiding misunderstanding. China also announced that it will work with the U.S. to tackle climate change, considered one of the low-hanging fruits of Sino-U.S. diplomacy.
She said the two sides agreed to establish a joint working group on climate change and to enhance communication and coordination on such topics as the Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar.
"The United States was clearly not making any efforts to achieve any diplomatic breakthroughs and wasn't primarily oriented towards any sort of reset with China," said Rachel Esplin Odell, a research fellow in the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute. "If their objective was primarily about domestic signaling you could say they probably achieved that objective because the recording out of it focused on all the criticisms that they raised," she said.
Odell said there is currently a "mismatch" in incentives, with the Biden administration focused on mostly such domestic issues as the pandemic, economy, racial injustice and climate change, and Beijing eager to remove anti-China measures put in place by the Trump administration.
4) India: The enemy of my enemy ...
Sone of Austin's last words in New Delhi told the most about his mission: securing a strong partnership with a historically nonaligned state.
"My concern is that they prioritize their relationship with us and their willingness to work with us at the very top of their list of priorities here," he said in a solo news conference. He noted that "in my engagements here I walk away very encouraged."
The U.S. and India are not in an alliance, but Austin's trip and language had all the trappings of one.
India is the only country in recent history to have had a military engagement with the Chinese. Strategists in Washington have been closely watching how the Indians have faced off the world's largest military machine: the People's Liberation Army.
"We discussed opportunities to elevate the U.S.-India major defense partnership, which is a priority of the Biden-Harris administration," he said in a joint appearance with Defense Minister Rajnath Singh after they met in New Delhi. "And we'll do that through regional security cooperation and military-to-military interactions and defense trade."
The two countries do have a so-called Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, with Austin describing a "forward-looking defense partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach to the region."
Singh confirmed India's end of the bargain: "expanding military-to-military engagement across services, information sharing, cooperation in emerging sectors of defense, and mutual logistics support."
But as a practical matter, the new U.S.-India defense collaboration centers on China and operationalizing the Quad.
"In terms of increasing interoperability then more [joint] exercises are good," Austin said in the solo news conference. He confirmed that the talks included standard fare for defense partners: equipment, information sharing and logistical assistance.
The two sides are continuing to advance new areas of cooperation, including information sharing and logistics, and artificial intelligence, and cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber, Austin said in his appearance with Singh. "We also discussed engagement with like-minded partners through multilateral groupings such as the Quad and ASEAN."
India is looking to expand beyond just a democratic dot on the map for the U.S.
On officer exchanges, visits and basing agreements, the Defense Ministry wants to be seen and heard in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and Africa Command, Singh said.
But there are complications: India's old habit of buying arms from Russia, plus its own increasingly deteriorating human rights record.
While Austin did raise the subjects, the former infantry general did so with a diplomat's delicate touch.
Regarding hitting India with sanctions for its purchase of a sophisticated Russian missile system expected to be delivered in late 2021, Austin did not risk the ire of New Delhi, saying at the solo news conference that the Indians "have not acquired an S-400 system yet, so there would be no reason for sanctions."
On India's poor human rights record, particularly its treatment of Muslims in Kashmir, dissenters in the press and the recent farmer protests, Austin said that "we have to remember that India is our partner" and that "I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions."
5) Afghanistan: Good cop Austin, bad cop Blinken?
The Biden administration has inherited what may be the tail end of America's longest war: a peace agreement with the Taliban that is contingent on both sides, with the U.S. withdrawal of its at least 2,500 troops from the country and the curbing of violence and support for terrorism by the Taliban.
"It's obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country," said Austin in Afghanistan, where he decided to make a surprise trip on the last leg of his tour.
"We'd really like to see that violence come down. And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work."
In contrast to the much-publicized recent exchange between his cabinet counterpart Blinken and Afghan authorities, Austin took a different approach on this trip.
"I came to Afghanistan to listen and learn," he tweeted after meeting with President Ashraf Ghani. "This visit has been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing here" with Biden, he added.
"I didn't carry a message or convey a message to the [Afghan] president," Austin told reporters. "Again, I really wanted to listen to him and to understand what his concerns were, see the landscape through his eyes. ... And that's what we did."
"I really had a chance to hear from him," Austin said of Ghani.
The language contrasted with what The Associated Press called a "sharply worded" letter from Blinken to Ghani that was leaked to Afghan media in early March, pushing for constitutional reforms and power sharing with the Taliban. Austin exercised caution about local sentiments by avoiding these terms when discussing the shape of the future government of Afghanistan: "hopefully we'll get to a point where we have a responsible transition to something else," he told reporters.
But while gentle with the Afghans, the secretary of defense was all business with the Pakistanis. Austin didn't visit the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic republic, but considering that Pakistan figures heavily in the Pentagon's Afghan calculus, he did speak by phone with the country's top military commander, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, on his way back. There were no tweets or press conferences about Pakistan, but importantly, Austin "reinforced the United States' commitment to maintaining a strong bilateral defense relationship with and expressed gratitude for Islamabad's continued support for the Afghan peace process," according to the American readout.
A former commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, from which he led the fight against the Taliban from 2013 to 2016, Austin is no fan of using the term "withdrawal" in his public remarks on Afghanistan.
But with Biden having campaigned for president on an end to America's "forever" wars, Austin has been tasked with overseeing what many in Washington's security establishment have pushed for: winding down the nearly two-decade-old U.S. presence in the war-torn country. But he didn't comment on an actual date.
"In terms of an end date or setting a specific date for withdrawal, that's the domain of my boss," he said -- "the decision that the president will make at some point in time in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward. And I don't want to try to do my boss's job for him. He doesn't need for me to do that."