OJoe Biden travels to Asia for the first time as President of the United States. The backdrop is turbulent. Among other issues, his administration has been dealing with China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions with Beijing over Taiwan. Then there’s the ramping up of missile tests by North Korea even as it locks down major cities in response to its first COVID-19 outbreak—or at least the first one that Pyongyang has admitted to.
Biden’s top foreign policy priority is containing China, U.S. diplomatic sources tell TIME, and he doesn’t want American help for Ukraine to give the impression that his focus has drifted westwards. It is designed to show U.S. commitment to Asia, while also sending the message to China/North Korea that U.S. regional alliances remain solid with South Korea/Japan.
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Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump made a visit to Beijing the centerpiece of on his first Asian trip, but the current president is making a point of concentrating on allies.
“Biden is hoping to reassure allies about U.S. commitment that Trump sabotaged with his erratic diplomacy,” says Jeffery Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University Japan.
Security on the Korean peninsula will dominate Biden’s summit with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul on May 21, though Ukraine and supply chain issues are also on the agenda. Biden, along with the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and Japan will attend a meeting under the Quad security agreement in Tokyo on the following day.
This handout photo, provided by U.S. Army shows Yoon Sukyel (2nd L), the then President-elect South Korea. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, (R) United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea Commander during his visit to Camp Humphreys, April 7, 2022, Pyeongtaek.
Staff Sergeant Kris Bonet—U.S. Army via Getty Images
Biden’s visit to South Korea
During his election campaign, Yoon called for more U.S. THAAD missile systems to be deployed to South Korea and even raised the possibility of pre-emptive military strikes on Pyongyang’s weapons sites. Biden, who is expected to be in Seoul to encourage Yoon not to change his tough stance given the 16 missile launches that Kim Jong Un conducted this year. A growing concern is that there may be another nuclear test.
But despite Kim’s bluster, North Korea is in trouble. The reclusive nation is suffering an “explosive” COVID-19 outbreak, with at least 1.2 million believed infected and more than 50 dead, according to official figures. The regime is refusing to provide vaccines, and does not have basic medical supplies. As a result, many major cities have been shut down, including Pyongyang. Rural areas are seeing work units separated. The state media supports homepun remedies such as salt water gargles or the intake of yogurt.
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Many have suggested that this crisis could be a chance for medical diplomacy. In his first budget speech to South Korea’s National Assembly on Monday, Yoon said: “If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including COVID-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health care personnel.”
However, Pyongyang’s track record from the mid-1990s, when it aggressively pursued a nuclear program despite widespread famine that reportedly killed millions, doesn’t offer much hope of a slowdown in militarization.
“The government does not care about its own people,” says Sean King, a former U.S. diplomat and now senior vice-president of political risk firm Park Strategies.
On June 1, 2020, Korean University Student Progressive Association members burned a Japanese war flag at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Chris Jung/Nur Photo via Getty Images
Allies USA in Asia
At the moment, Biden is not able to force Seoul to work harder against China. Favorable views of the U.S. jumped sharply in South Korea in 2021, following Trump’s departure from the White House, and Yoon portrayed himself as staunchly pro-American during April’s election campaign.
He managed to make it through with the smallest margins. However, his weak mandate may have made him reluctant to abandon China as a top trading partner. This is especially important when the country’s economy continues its upward trajectory. “It’s not clear that Yoon will be as hard-line as the U.S. wants,” says Kingston.
Biden might try to exert more pressure upon China by getting Seoul into a deal with Tokyo, and forming closer ties against Beijing. Relations between the two U.S. allies have been poor in recent years, owing to territorial disputes and unresolved abuses dating from Japan’s wartime occupation of the Korean peninsula. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made it clear that the ball is in Seoul’s court, and Yoon says he wants to improve ties but, given opposition control of South Korea’s National Assembly, making any concessions to Tokyo will be an uphill task for the South Korean leader.
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Biden will be seeking unity during the Quad meeting. However, India’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spotlights the contradictory nature of this odd alliance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won’t want to be pushed too hard to take sides against Moscow, which Delhi regards as a long-time ally and defense partner. Nor will Biden be insistent, for fear of losing India’s support in America’s rivalry with China.
“It makes things a little awkward and kind of calls into question the utility of the Quad,” says King. “Here you have this grouping where you pursue shared values … [of]Democracy and the protection of human rights. And then on the defining issue of the day, its most populous member doesn’t want to take a stand.”
China’s Premier Li Keqiang joined by leaders from other countries at the signing ceremony for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Video link was used to transmit the event via video link on Nov. 15, 2020.
Xinhua/Zhang Ling via Getty Images
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
Every U.S. president comes to Asia with something to sell and bulging out of Biden’s briefcase is his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Inaugurated in October 2021 by the IPEF, it is an initiative that promotes fair trade, better supply chains and greater sustainability.
Doubtless Washington will hope that the framework can mitigate the influence China wields through its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a pact of 16 countries that together make up about a third of the world’s GDP. The IPEF may also be able to replace the opportunities lost by the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned on his first day of office.
“The IPEF holds promise, but it will need to be well engineered and managed if it is to advance U.S. economic and strategic interests, become a credible alternative to other regional initiatives, and be seen by allies and partners as a durable U.S. commitment to the region,” wrote Matthew P. Goodman and William Alan Reinsch in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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It will be asked why the U.S. doesn’t simply join the Japanese-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—which evolved from the TPP after America’s withdrawal—instead of pitching an entirely new agreement that might be seen as adversarial to Beijing. Many Asian countries are uncomfortable with being asked repeatedly to choose between China and the U.S.
“I guess it’s good that we’re pushing something, but I’d rather just see us get back in TPP,” says King.
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