WASHINGTON/SEOUL/TOKYO: On his first Asian trip as president, Joe Biden will visit Japan and South Korea, sending a clear warning to China, according to aides and analysts: don’t try what Russia did in Ukraine anywhere in Asia, especially not in Taiwan.
Biden leaves on Thursday for the five-day journey after months of rallying allies to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow refers to as a “special operation.”
In Seoul, he talks with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and in Tokyo, he meets with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, both of whom share concerns about North Korea and China and want to strengthen their long-standing connections with Washington.
“According to Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration, “at its core, this (tour) is about building out the alliance network in East Asia,” partly to counter any Chinese actions against Taiwan.
The broad penalties that Biden pushed against Russia would be difficult to implement against China. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner and the greatest supplier of items that Japan imports, far outnumbering the United States in both cases. Biden’s message is complicated by the fact that his administration has not spelled out a strategy to fight Beijing if it attacks to reclaim the self-ruled island of Taiwan, despite intelligence reports that preparations are underway.
Likewise, there is no public strategy to combat Beijing’s no-COVID lockdown coverage that some economists consider may provoke a world recession.
Despite these flaws, Seoul and Tokyo are providing more assistance to Washington than in the past.
“The president is fortunate in his counterparts,” said Michael Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I was doing the arithmetic on this, and it’s been at least 20 years since an American president could come to Japan and Korea and count on both nations’ leaders being so openly pro-alliance.”
ECONOMIC FRAMEWORK, QUAD
Biden is expected to strengthen collaboration with allies on a number of technological initiatives, highlight new public-private partnerships to alleviate supply chain constraints, and support South Korean and Japanese initiatives to modernise defence capabilities and develop offensive navy capability.
Analysts predict he will not visit the demilitarised zone that borders North Korea, and the administration will not bring any new ideas on how to handle the tense relationship. North Korea has abandoned a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile testing and should begin nuclear tests as soon as possible.
North Korea has also just stated that it is dealing with a COVID-19 epidemic, but it has resisted demands to return to diplomacy, appearing unwilling to accept even Chinese assistance.
In Japan, Biden will meet Prime Ministers from the “Quad’s” opposing three members: Japan’s Kishida, India’s Narendra Modi, and whoever wins what is expected to be a fair election in Australia on Saturday.
While the informal association is not a maritime alliance like NATO for Europe, Washington views it as important in cementing professional-democratic norms. Biden will emphasise collaboration on COVID vaccinations, humanitarian aid, infrastructure development, as well as weather, housing, and cybersecurity.
Kishida and Biden are expected to have a light conversation with Modi about what the US sees as India’s lacklustre response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden might potentially inaugurate the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Japan, a cooperation that promotes conversation and cross-border funding for trade, supply chain resilience, infrastructure, decarbonization, and tax and anti-corruption measures.
But what Asian countries really need – improved access to hundreds of thousands of American customers, as agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Donald Trump abandoned in 2017 – will not be included in the agreement.
According to Japanese officers and observers, Kishida is expected to press Biden to rejoin the deal.