MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken and key allies are "voting with their feet" by flying to Australia to focus on challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia's foreign minister said Wednesday, as fears rise of a Russian invasion of Ukraine on the other side of the globe.
Blinken landed in the Australian city of Melbourne on Wednesday ahead of a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne as well as their Indian and Japanese counterparts who form the so-called "Quad."
It will be the fourth such ministerial-level meeting of the bloc of Indo-Pacific democracies that was created to counter China, and Blinken's arrival makes him the most senior member of the Biden administration to set foot in Australia.
The visit comes as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate over Ukraine.
Payne said the gathering sends a message to Beijing that security in the Indo-Pacific remains an important challenge to Washington.
The Quad ministers were "voting with their feet in terms of the priority that they accord to issues" important to the Indo-Pacific, said Payne, who will host the meeting Friday.
Blinken's trip is designed to reinforce America's interests in Asia and its intent to push back against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region. He will also visit Fiji and discuss pressing concerns about North Korea with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Hawaii.
While China will top the Quad meeting agenda, U.S. officials say Ukraine and the relationship between Beijing and Moscow will also be a topic for discussion.
With the Quad, Blinken is expected to highlight the benefits of Indo-Pacific nations aligning themselves with democracies and democratic values, officials said. "That part of that discussion will relate to the challenges that China poses to those values and to the rules-based order," said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to a question about Blinken's visit with a lengthy attack on American democracy and a defense of China's contributions to the global order.
"With its so-called democracy having collapsed long ago, the U.S. is forcing other countries to accept the standards of the American democracy, drawing lines with democratic values and piecing together cliques. That is a complete betrayal of democracy," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.
Zhao said China "seeks peace and development, promotes cooperation, promotes the construction of an equal, open and inclusive security system in the Asia-Pacific region that does not target third countries."
"We oppose forming exclusive cliques and setting up groups within groups, as well as creating confrontation between camps," he said.
Blinken is also expected to address threats posed by a growing partnership between authoritarian Russia and China, particularly after the Sunday meeting in Beijing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics.
The U.S. had hoped that the Xi-Putin meeting would have demonstrated Chinese wariness about Russia's military buildup along Ukraine's borders. Instead, as China increasingly asserts its determination to reunite the island of Taiwan with the mainland, Xi was largely silent on the matter.
"That meeting should have provided China the opportunity to encourage Russia to pursue diplomacy and de-escalation in Ukraine. That is what the world expects from responsible powers," Kritenbrink said. If Russia invades Ukraine and "China looks the other way, it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia's efforts to coerce Ukraine even when they embarrass Beijing, harm European security, and risk global peace and economic stability."
U.S. officials have noted that Russia previously mounted military action against a former Soviet republic during a Beijing-hosted Olympics when it moved against Georgia during the 2008 Summer Games.
The U.S. and its allies have spoken out forcefully about Chinese policies toward Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, the western region of Xinjiang and the South China Sea. They accuse Beijing of rampant human rights abuses, repression of dissent and forcefully seizing territory that its smaller neighbors also claim.
U.S. officials say they expect Blinken and others at the Quad meeting in Melbourne to reiterate concerns about China's actions, especially recent show-of-force demonstrations directed at Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. On Monday, the Biden administration greenlit a $100 million arms sale to Taiwan that will support its U.S.-made missile defense systems.
After a brief stop in Fiji, where he will be the first secretary of state to visit since 1985, Blinken will return to Washington via Hawaii, where he will hold North Korea-focused talks with the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.
A series of recent North Korean missile tests have underscored the threat posed by the nuclear-armed nation, which has ignored multiple entreaties by the United States to return to the negotiating table.
"Countering the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs remains a top priority for the United States and I am confident the same can be said for our Japanese and South Korean partners," Kritenbrink said of the talks planned for Honolulu.
"We have made clear many times that we remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions to achieve that end and to make tangible progress. We have reached out repeatedly to Pyongyang. However, to date, we have not received a substantive response," he said.
China is North Korea's most important ally, and Zhao reiterated Beijing's call for the U.S. to lift its unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang and take the North's "legitimate security concerns" into consideration.