SEOUL - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday (March 17) that China was acting aggressively and repressively, and accused North Korea of committing “systemic and widespread abuses” against its own people.
Blinken’s remarks disclosed a fissure in Washington's and Seoul’s approach to China and North Korea, openly pressing South Korea to join hands in keeping Beijing in check and improving Pyongyang’s human rights records.
Blinken is visiting Japan and South Korea with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a first overseas trip by top-level members of President Joe Biden’s administration aimed at rebuilding US alliances in Asia.
At talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in Seoul, Blinken said China was using “coercion and aggression”, citing its posturing over Taiwan and Hong Kong and in the East and South China Seas where it has territorial disputes with Japan and other Asian nations.
China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have become a priority issue in increasingly testy relations between Washington and Beijing.
Beijing’s territorial ambitions have prompted Japan to seek even closer ties with the United States, but the Sino-US rivalry posed a challenge for Seoul, which is not eager to provoke China, its largest economic partner and a key North Korea ally.
“China is using coercion and aggression to systematically erode the autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights and its regime in Tibet and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken told an online roundtable of Japanese journalists in Tokyo that China was raising tensions by “acting both more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad”.
The comments echoed a joint statement issued by Blinken, Austin and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi after their “2+2” talks in Tokyo, and come ahead of Blinken’s first in-person meetings with senior Chinese officials planned for later this week in Alaska.
China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday protested the joint statement, calling it a “malicious attack” and “gross interference in China’s internal affairs".
Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference: "The United States and Japan stick to a Cold War mentality, deliberately engage in group confrontation, and are trying to create an anti-China encirclement."
"This move by the US and Japan will bring only chaos, and even conflict, to the region, and will only make the world more aware of the US-Japan plot to disrupt the peace and stability of the region," he added.
Blinken urged Seoul to “stand up to shared values” together to prevent a “dangerous erosion of democracy” in the region.
“We look forward to the opportunity to lay out in very clear terms to our Chinese counterparts some of the concerns that we have about the actions they’re taking,” said Blinken.
Blinken sharply criticised North Korea’s human rights record, an issue that activists say was overlooked under former US President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits and boasted of rapport with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea has faced international scrutiny after supporting a new law banning the launching of anti-Kim leaflets into the North.
President Moon Jae-in’s administration, keen to revive cross-border exchanges, has said those leaflets had caused safety concerns and North Korean human rights could be improved by resuming humanitarian aid.
“The authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systemic and widespread abuses against its own people,” Blinken told Chung. “We must stand with the people that demand fundamental rights and freedom against those who repress them.”
The State Department issued a statement, saying both officials agreed to work together to resolve North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues, calling them a “priority”.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said they also agreed to continue discussions to arrange a summit between Moon and Biden as early as possible, and to coordinate on North Korea as Washington’s policy is under way.
Austin held separate talks with South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook and pledged to continue providing extended deterrence, including the US nuclear umbrella, Seoul’s defense ministry said in a statement.
Both sides also reaffirmed their shared goal of achieving complete denuclearisation and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, the ministry said.
“The alliance has never been more important,” Austin said at the meeting, citing “unprecedented challenges” posed by North Korea and China.
Austin called the alliance a “key provider” of peace, security and prosperity in North-east Asia, and for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
Suh said it was important for the allies to maintain a strong deterrence and joint defence posture against North Korea, and vowed to strengthen relations.
Blinken and Austin were set to hold talks with their South Korean counterparts and meet President Moon and other senior officials until Thursday.