President Biden made his first trip to East Asia beginning late last week, visiting South Korea and Japan, where he participated in a leader’s summit of the so-called Quad, which includes Australia, Japan and India. The president’s visit is part of a flurry of Asia-focused diplomatic initiatives in recent weeks including the U.S.-ASEAN summit, the U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue and an upcoming speech from Secretary of State Blinken, which is expected to lay out the contours of the administration’s China Policy. While the war in Ukraine has dominated Washington’s attention this year, these efforts are intended to demonstrate the United States’ prioritization of the Indo-Pacific region.

President Joe Biden, second from left, with, from left, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in Tokyo on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden, second from left, with, from left, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in Tokyo on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

USIP’s Frank Aum, Mirna Galic and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the key takeaways from Biden’s trip and how China factors into U.S. diplomacy in Asia.

South Korea’s New Leader and Biden Build Ties

Aum: President Biden and new Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon Suk-yeol shared four main goals as part of the U.S. leader’s visit to Seoul from May 20-22: build personal rapport, strengthen deterrence against North Korea, enhance mutual economic security and expand South Korea’s role as a pivotal global country. They appear to have achieved these goals without major hitches.

  • Relationship-building. The two leaders had not met before the summit, but they seemed to have bonded over their pets and families. Biden and Yoon also had good will already built-in. Yoon is known as a strong advocate of the U.S.-ROK alliance who shares Biden’s views on security and economic matters. Also, their respective foreign policy advisors have a history of working together during previous administrations.
  • Deterrence. The main security priority was strengthening deterrence against North Korea. In recent months, North Korea has conducted numerous tests to improve its military capabilities, including its first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) test since 2017. U.S. officials have noted the possibility of another ICBM test or even nuclear test in the near future. Sure enough, a day after Biden’s visit, the South Korean military said that Pyongyang fired three missiles off its east coast, including one ICBM.

At the summit, the two sides agreed to expand the scale and scope of joint military exercises and increase the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, both of which had been reduced since 2018. Yoon’s desire for beefed up exercises and greater displays of alliance resolve, such as U.S. B-52 bomber missions to the Peninsula and greater U.S. carrier strike group deployments, dovetailed with the Biden administration’s hopes to reinforce the combined alliance posture on and near the Korean Peninsula, not only as a stern signal to North Korea but also to pressure China.

It’s not clear, however, that these displays of toughness actually deter North Korean provocations.  In 2013, the alliance engaged in similar deterrence-boosting activities in response to North Korean nuclear and missile testing. Those moves didn’t deter North Korea or coerce it back to the negotiating table, and in the four subsequent years, North Korea achieved the greatest advances in its nuclear program, including three more nuclear tests and over 90 ballistic missile tests.

The alliance’s engagement with North Korea will be complicated by North Korea’s ongoing COVID crisis, with over 2 million cases of citizens reporting fever-like symptoms. Both Washington and Seoul reiterated their offers of assistance, but North Korea has yet to request or accept direct aid from the two countries. There are reports of North Korea accepting aid from China, but given that North Korea has not engaged in a vaccination campaign and faces chronic food and health problems, the country’s ability to engage outward may be limited.

  • Economic security. The summit’s other major focus was enhancing economic security and supply chain resiliency. Biden secured South Korea’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the U.S.-led effort to set the economic rules of the road in the region, and met with several top South Korean companies like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor Group, which reflected his interest in attracting greater South Korean investment in the United States. One big win was Hyundai’s announcement that it would establish a new electric vehicle and electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in Georgia, which will create 8,100 jobs. This decision adds to the other major South Korean investments in high-tech fields in Michigan, Texas and Tennessee that were announced last year.
  • Global player. President Yoon has expressed his desire to make South Korea a “global pivotal state” with a greater role befitting the country’s status as the 10th largest economy and sixth largest military. The summit joint statement advanced this goal, describing wide-ranging areas of cooperation beyond the Peninsula, including climate change, clean energy, infectious diseases, a secure Internet, cyberspace, and even sensitive issues like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Japan’s Rising Leadership

Galic: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s statements and comments during the Biden visit show how much Japan has come into its own in terms of playing a prominent leadership role in the region and globally, alongside the United States. This is underscored by Kishida’s intentions for the G-7 during Japan’s presidency of the group next year, including a focus by its leaders on “resolutely reject[ing] aggression by force, threat by nuclear weapons, and attempts to overturn the international order with a strength that will make a mark in history.”

Although Japan has been on a trajectory of more active leadership in international affairs for some time, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and U.S. focus on the importance of Indo-Pacific alliances have provided fertile ground for Japan’s contributions. Kishida’s diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia earlier this month included discussions with regional countries on support for Ukraine. Japan’s own robust response to Russia’s actions, despite significant impact on Japanese interests, including long-standing ambitions to resolve a territorial dispute with Russia over northern islands, has been highly appreciated in Europe and the United States. Some additional points of interest from the visit include:

  • Defense spending: Kishida stated his determination to secure a “substantial increase” of Japan’s defense budget in the Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement released Monday, noting the importance of reinforcing Japan’s defense capabilities. Tokyo passed a record defense budget in 2021, after multiple years of increases. Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has long eyed a 2 percent of GDP defense spending target, matching NATO standards.
  • Strike capability: Japan’s continuing internal debate on an “enemy base strike” capability was briefly featured in the Biden-Kishida press conference, although the topic is not new. Kishida noted that he discussed the issue with Biden and reiterated his interest in looking at “all options” in reinforcing Japan’s defense capabilities. The ability to strike an enemy’s missile bases is seen as a deterrent to attacks on Japan but has been controversial domestically. Last month, an LDP commission recommended a change in language from “enemy base strike” capability to “counterstrike” capability, to avoid perceptions that Japan intends to strike enemy bases “pre-emptively,” considered illegal under its constitution.    
  • Security Council reform: Japan reiterated its long-standing interest in becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council, an effort on which the country has been active, on and off, for several decades, but which appeared to be on the back burner in recent years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the inability of the Security Council to address the issue has reignited calls for Security Council reform, creating an opening for renewed Japanese efforts. The Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement noted that “President Biden reiterated support for Japan’s permanent membership on a reformed Security Council,” consistent with previously held U.S. positions.

Tokyo also hosted the Quad leaders’ summit, marking the second time the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States met in person in the format. Notably, Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, attended despite having been sworn in only the previous day, in an unusual process that preceded the final vote count. The move shows the importance Australia places on working with its multilateral partners in the Quad forum. The Quad leaders’ promise to deliver “tangible benefits” for the region could have an important impact in terms of regional buy-in for the group. In this regard, an announced “Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness” has the potential to help countries mitigate major problems in the region with illegal fishing and climate related disasters. 

China and Taiwan Loom Large Over Biden’s Trip

Vandenbrink: President Biden’s trip did not include China or Taiwan, but U.S. relations with both loomed large. A key purpose of the trip to was to reorient the administration’s foreign policy toward a focus on China and showcase the administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” of revitalizing ties with regional partners. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and then the war in Ukraine have dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The trip was meant to show that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time, addressing challenges with both Russia and China simultaneously.  

A key moment of the trip came when President Biden rankled China with comments that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if invaded by China. Asked in Tokyo by a reporter if he “was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” Biden said, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.”  The statement appeared to defy the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” or avoiding any open commitment to Taiwan’s defense. The fact that it was not the first time Biden made such a comment fueled speculation even further. A White House official later walked back the remark, saying it did not reflect a policy shift. Asked the next day if there had been any change in U.S. policy on Taiwan, President Biden said no.

Even though the comment was rolled back, the remarks ignited debate about whether it is time for the United States to replace the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity. Proponents of strategic ambiguity argue the uncertainty provides enough of a deterrent to Beijing to stave off a Chinese invasion without providing so much reassurance to Taiwan that the island is emboldened to declare independence, maintaining a delicate status quo that has supported relative peace in the strait for more than four decades. Critics argue the factors underpinning that delicate balance have already shifted, with a more ambitious Beijing eager for Taiwan’s “reunification” by 2049, and that the messy ambiguity only encourages China to challenge the status quo. 

The administration’s answer to the debate seems to be, at least for now, that strategic ambiguity is here to stay. The fact that Biden had to walk the comments back leaves the commitment ambiguous. Even if the de facto policy is that the United States would expect to come to Taiwan’s defense, as many analysts assess, it won’t say so out loud and unequivocally. Secretary of State Blinken is expected to make a long-awaited speech on China policy later this week that may contain more details on the approach to Taiwan — in addition to more details on how the United States will work with allies in the region, in keeping with the focus of Biden’s trip.  

Hours after the comments on Taiwan, while the Quad was meeting in Tokyo, Russia and China conducted joint air patrols near Japan’s and South Korea’s air defense identification zones. The exercises — the first joint drills by the two countries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February — were likely planned well in advance of news of Biden’s trip, but going ahead with the drills despite the meetings was a pointed sendoff. At the end of a trip that was supposed to be focused on Asia, the exercises were a reminder that Russia is an Asian power too.

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