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Blinken heads out to reassure Asian nations that the U.S. is still focused on China

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his way to Australia. It's part of a swing through Asia. He'll meet with his counterparts from key allies Australia, Japan, as well as India. The meetings are part of a broader effort by the administration to reassure Asian nations that the U.S. is still focused on competition with China despite the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When President Biden took office, he made clear his foreign policy priority was China, the world's No. 2 economy and a strategic rival to the U.S. Fast-forward one year on, instead of China, the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury and others are all concentrated on Russia and Ukraine. Biden's predecessors, Presidents Obama and Trump, discovered the same thing - no matter how much they wanted to focus on China, there was always another crisis to attend to.

BRIAN KATULIS: So there's been a successive any number of what I would call Michael Corleone moments for U.S. foreign policy from "The Godfather" - just when I thought I was out of particular places, I'm pulled back in.

NORTHAM: Brian Katulis is with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D,C.

KATULIS: Events come up, and because America still does have a global role, a role in every corner of the world and there are expectations that we'll be there for partners, that will often cause those plans, those initial international security strategies and things like this, to basically be tossed out the door.

NORTHAM: Long-simmering geopolitical dilemmas from North Korea to Venezuela, the Middle East to Russia, can all distract U.S. plans for dealing with China, says Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

HAL BRANDS: I think the Ukraine crisis is of a piece with the broader strategic problem that the United States faces today, which is that we have too many rivals to handle all at once.

NORTHAM: Brands says for the past three decades since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had overwhelming military power and believed it could fight two big wars in different parts of the world at the same time.

BRANDS: The problem is that that standard became harder and harder to maintain over time because the number of threats grew and the severity of the threats grew.

NORTHAM: In 2018, the Trump administration decided the military could fight only one big war at a time. Dan Kurtz-Phelan, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and author of "The China Mission," says that decision signaled the U.S. was stretched too thin.

DAN KURTZ-PHELAN: In some ways, overstretched is just an inevitable byproduct of being a global power. There are always going to be more things that you want to do and more priorities, more commitments that you want to take on than you're going to be able to take on.

NORTHAM: Kurtz-Phelan says the U.S. needs to examine its priorities closely.

KURTZ-PHELAN: In national security strategy, as in most parts of life, the hardest thing is always going to be deciding what not to do, what not to make your top priority.

NORTHAM: To be sure, the U.S. still has unparalleled military capacity, the biggest economy in the world and a global web of alliances. But there are also deep internal divides in the country, leaving allies uncertain whether successive U.S. administrations will renege on agreements or whether it will leave allies in the lurch when its priorities shift. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan during a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would say Afghanistan is a problem because if you're not going to stick by allies, then it does call into question credibility. And to the extent that people start to wonder, does the United States have staying power?

NORTHAM: Kurtz-Phelan says America's problems at home and being stretched thin overseas could be seen as weakness, one which adversaries may try to exploit.

KURTZ-PHELAN: You'll have all of these rivals testing the United States to see where our commitments really are, to see where we're really willing to take a stand and really - what we're really going to make the top priority.

NORTHAM: And that's China, despite all the crises in the world that keep cropping up.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.