20 Jan 2021

Biden state and defence picks highlight strategic alliances focus

3:44 pm on 20 January 2021

US President-elect Joe Biden's state and defence secretary picks are vowing to mend alliances overseas and at home, refocus strategy on China and rid "racists and extremists" from the US military.

Global presence

Biden's secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken said that he would work to revitalize damaged American diplomacy and build a united front to counter the challenges posed by Russia, China and Iran.

At his confirmation hearing a day before Democrat Biden takes over from Republican Donald Trump - whose tenure was marked by unilateral action that often upset traditional US allies - Blinken said he would work with allies and work with humility.

"We do have a big task ahead of us in restoring, revitalising those relationships. I do think it starts... with showing up again," said Blinken.

Nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill January 19, 2021.

Photo: AFP / Graeme Jennings-Pool / Getty Images

"Some of our allies and partners question the sustainability of our commitments based on the past few years and that's going to be a hard hill to climb."

Blinken, 58, a veteran foreign policy hand and close Biden confidant, said he believed US leadership was vital but should also benefit those at home.

"If we want to have [American people's] support for American leadership, American engagement in the world, we have to demonstrate that it is actually making an improvement in their lives or preventing something," he said.

There has been no indication that Blinken would face difficulty being confirmed by the Senate. Throughout the hearing, he received bipartisan praise from the senators.

At the end of the four-and-a-half hour hearing the incoming committee chair, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, said he hoped the Senate would confirm Blinken as quickly as possible. Republican Senator Jim Risch, the outgoing chairman, also praised him.

Menendez called Blinken's testimony a "tour de force."

Blinken testified at the Capitol complex two weeks after the building representing American democracy was stormed by thousands of members of a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn Biden's victory. The unprecedented attack stunned the world, further bruised the reputation of the United States, and gave ammunition to its adversaries.

Blinken said there was a need to reinforce democracy at home.

"Humility, because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad," he said.

His approach was a stark contrast to outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's campaign to get back "the swagger" of the State Department.

Defence: Internal culture focus and transgender ban cancellation

Retired Army General Lloyd Austin, if confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden's defense secretary, said he would work to rid "racists and extremists" from the ranks of the US military, mend alliances and focus strategically on China.

Austin would become the first African American US defense secretary and has declared his intention to improve diversity within the US military, which is diverse in the lower ranks but largely white and male at the top.

Retired US Army General Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his conformation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense on January 19, 2021.

Retired US Army General Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Photo: AFP / Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool / Getty Images

Pentagon data showed a large number of minority service members experienced racial harassment and discrimination, and this month's siege of the Capitol by far-right extremists threw a spotlight on supporters of such ideologies within the US armed forces.

"If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity," Austin, 67, said at his confirmation hearing.

"The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Austin's remarks came minutes after the Pentagon confirmed that 12 members of the National Guard had been removed from duty ahead of Democrat Biden's inauguration on Wednesday following vetting, which included scrubbing them for ties to extremism.

Austin would require a waiver from Congress since he has not been out of uniform long enough, a rule meant to safeguard civilian control of the US armed forces. The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote on Thursday on whether to grant the waiver, according to the chamber's schedule.

Austin also said he supported Biden's plans to overturn a ban on transgender troops imposed by Trump.

"If you're fit and you're qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve and you can expect that I will support that throughout," Austin said.

China challenge

Biden takes on a much different world from the one he left four years ago as President Barack Obama's vice president. China has a larger global role, from multilateral institutions to assisting development in Africa and Latin America. Ties between Washington and Beijing have sunk to their worst in decades.

US President-elect Joe Biden lays out his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the nation's economy at the Queen theater January 14, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware.

US President-elect Joe Biden Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images / AFP

Blinken said there was "no doubt" China posed the most significant challenge to Washington of any nation.

He said he believed Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China - even if he did not agree with all his methods - and endorsed the Trump administration's assessment on Tuesday that the Chinese Communist Party was committing genocide against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Austin repeatedly voiced his intention to empower civilians at the Pentagon and ensure support to civilian diplomats guiding US foreign policy.

"I will make clear my expectation that the Pentagon work hand in glove with the State Department, supporting the work of our diplomats," he said.

He said he would focus strategically on Asia, and China, in particular. Asked about China's goal of developing a military that is superior to that of the United States, Austin said he aimed to work to ensure that "never happens."

Experts say America's military must bolster alliances to compete with China. Some of those alliances, including with South Korea and NATO, were strained under Trump.

Rivals and allies

Austin also said he looked forward to "refurbishing alliances."

Biden has said that if Tehran resumed strict compliance with a 2015 agreement, abandoned by Trump, in which it restrained its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions, Washington would too. Trump quit the deal in 2018, saying it did not go far enough.

Austin, who oversaw US troops in the Middle East before retiring from the military in 2016, said Iran's behaviour was destabilising and added that Tehran represented a threat to US forces and partners in the region.

"If Iran were ever to get a nuclear capability, most every problem we deal with in the region would be tougher to deal with because of that," he said.

Blinken also said of resuming the deal that "we are a long way from there," and the incoming president would need to see what Iran actually did.

The challenge posed by Russia, which has been accused of interference in 2016 US elections and a broad cyberattack on the US government last year, was also very high on the Biden administration's agenda, Blinken said.

He said the Biden administration intended to review the US approach and policy toward North Korea and consult closely with allies on how to get Pyongyang back to negotiations aimed at convincing it to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

On Venezuela, he said Biden's administration would continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American country's president.

Blinken told members of the US Senate that Biden would seek to "more effectively target" sanctions on the country, which aim to oust President Nicolas Maduro - who retains control of the country. Blinken said the new administration would look at more humanitarian assistance to the country.

The United States, along with dozens of other countries, recognized Guaido - the leader of Venezuela's opposition-held National Assembly - as the country's president in January 2019, arguing Maduro's 2018 re-election was rigged.

Maduro calls Guaido a US puppet seeking to oust him in a coup. His allies have expressed a desire to engage in negotiations with the Biden administration after years of tensions and escalating US sanctions.

Russia-Europe gas pipeline facing ongoing sanctions

The US on Tuesday (local time) imposed sanctions on a ship involved in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to take Russian natural gas to Europe, as the Trump administration sought to raise pressure on the project on its last full day in office.

The US Treasury Department said it imposed the sanctions on the Russian pipe-laying ship "Fortuna" and its owner, KVT-RUS, under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Nord Stream 2, designed to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream undersea gas pipeline, would take gas to Europe via Germany, bypassing Ukraine, which would deprive Kiev of lucrative transit fees.

The project is a rising point of contention between Moscow and Washington. The US, eager to sell Europe more liquefied natural gas, said Nord Stream 2 would increase Russia's economic and political leverage over Europe. Moscow and Germany said it was a commercial project.

"The United States is not afraid to hold accountable those who continue to aid and abet this tool of Russian coercion," Secretary of State Pompeo said in a statement.

The State Department said it would consider further actions in the near term, under CAATSA and under new sanctions expanded in the annual defense policy bill.

Hours before the official announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the project was under "unlawful" US pressure and that the Kremlin was closely watching developments in order to ensure the pipeline's completion.

Biden, who replaces Trump tomorrow, has opposed Nord Stream 2 in the past and his secretary of state nominee Blinken told his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that Biden strongly agreed with members of Congress that the pipeline was a bad idea.

Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had not discussed the issue at length yet with Biden, but the administration would use "every persuasive tool" available to persuade countries including Germany.

Germany, seeking to wean itself off nuclear and coal-fired power plants, said it was disappointed by the fresh sanctions on Monday, after Washington gave Berlin early word of the action.

More than 90 percent of the project has been completed, but more than 100km must still be laid in an area off Denmark that requires highly-specialized construction equipment.

According to Refinitiv ship-tracking data, the Fortuna is still anchored in the Baltic Sea near Rostock in northern Germany.

- Reuters

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