Top US envoy calls China biggest 'test,' vows American strength

Shaun Tandon, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 04 2021 05:11 AM

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks about priorities for administration of US President Joe Biden in the Ben Franklin room at the State Department in Washington, U.S. March 3, 2021. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States was ready to confront China wherever necessary, calling Washington's ties with the Asian power the "biggest geopolitical test" of the century.

In his first major speech, Blinken promised that President Joe Biden's administration will prioritize diplomacy over military action and build cooperation with the world on global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19.

"We will manage the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century: our relationship with China," Blinken said at the State Department.

He vowed to champion the rights of Hong Kong and the ethnic Uighurs, saying that if not, "China will act with even greater impunity."

"China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system -- all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to," he said.

"Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be. And we will engage China from a position of strength."

Blinken's remarks come amid a hardening of views in Washington since the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump, who alongside his top diplomat Mike Pompeo considered a hard line on China to be a signature stance and castigated Beijing over the pandemic and trading practices.

The Biden administration has signaled that it does not disagree on China but believes it can be more effective, including by working with allies.

'CLEAR AND ACHIEVALE' GOALS ON FORCE

Blinken indicated that Biden would be sparing in military action despite ordering an air strike last week in Syria against Iranian-linked Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries.

He did not mention a fresh attack Wednesday on a base in Iraq in which a US contractor died from a cardiac episode.

"In future cases when we must take military action, we will do so only when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable, consistent with our values and laws and with the informed consent of the American people," Blinken said.

"And we'll do it together with diplomacy."

Blinken voiced alarm over an "erosion of democracy" worldwide and said he would not shy away from addressing problems in the United States, pointing to the January 6 siege of the Capitol by Trump supporters as well as structural racism.

Unless the United States promotes democracy, "we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of our democracy," Blinken said.

But he said Biden had no interest in bringing democracy to the world "through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force."

"We have tried these tactics in the past. However well intentioned, they haven't worked," Blinken said.

He was likely alluding to the war in Iraq as well as the 2011 intervention -- which he supported as part of Barack Obama's administration -- in support of an uprising that overthrow dictator Moamer Kadhafi in Libya, ushering in a decade of chaos.

Trump set in motion a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the longest-ever US war, and touted himself as the rare US president not to start wars, although he mused about bombing Iran and Venezuela and ramped up drone strikes worldwide as well as sanctions.

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