Biden’s First Presidential Trip to Asia: Reaffirming the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Strategy

Biden’s First Presidential Trip to Asia:  Reaffirming the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Strategy

 

 

Despite its commitment to support Ukraine, which currently faces the Russian unprovoked military aggression, the United States remains firm in continuing to advance its Indo-Pacific Strategy, a document launched in February 2022 by the White House: it is in this key that US President Joe Biden's tour in South Korea and Japan should be interpreted.

Possibly due to the pandemic, Biden had to wait for his second year in office to pay his first presidential visit to the Asian continent, which could be considered a true beacon of American foreign policy since Barack Obama. During the Presidential tour, between 20-24 May 2022, the US President encountered the newly elected President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Yoon Seok-youl and the Prime Minister of Japan, Kishida Fumio. The President of the United States also took part at the Quad Summit, along with the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The high level meetings came after the White House hosted, during the previous week, the ASEAN-US Special Summit 2022.

In fact, the past two weeks have represented a tour de force of the US Foreign Policy in Asia with a clear message: the US does not intend to choose between Europe and Asia, on the contrary the US is determined to attract and unite the Western and Eastern democracies in order to oppose autocracy and aggression. On May 19, just a day before beginning his first Presidential tour in Asia, the US Head of State met Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and "warmly welcomed their applications for NATO membership, which will strengthen (...) collective security".

While the Presidential tour to the Republic of Korea and Japan shall be interpreted in an Asian, holistic key, rather than a series of bilateral visits, an analysis of the Korean and Japanese legs of Biden’s tour, as well as of Quad’s Summit, delivers more insights on the White House’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

 

Yoon-Biden Meeting in Seoul

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joseph Biden held their first Summit in Seoul. Biden’s meeting with Yoon - thought to share some of the US views on Indo-Pacific – seems to have focused on items such as North Korea's nuclear programs and supply chain risks.

According to media sources, the summit consisted of a private meeting between the two heads of state and was subsequently extended to the two Presidents' collaborators. At the end of the Summit, which focused on the "longstanding mission of denuclearizing North Korea, as well as the COVID-19 crisis, shifting trade order, supply chain realignment, climate change, democracy in crisis, and numerous other new challenges confront(ing) our alliance", the two leaders held a joint press conference.

In his remarks, President Yoon recalled that "President Biden affirmed the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and substantive extended deterrence. At the same time, our two countries hope to see North Korea take the path towards genuine denuclearization.", stressing the importance of the security pillar of the US-Republic of Korea bilateral relations. While the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has represented one of the mainstays of the US-Republic of Korea bilateral relations, the Press Conference of the two leaders has also brought into the limelight a possible development of the US-Republic of Korea technological cooperation: "President Biden and I — in the field of semiconductors, batteries, civil nuclear power, space development, cyberspace, and other emerging industries — agree to step up our practical cooperation."

According to President Biden's remarks, the security pillar will not only resume to "working toward a complete denuclearization of (...) the Korean Peninsula" but also to "promoting stability across the Taiwan Straits as well; and ensuring freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea and beyond."

The Joint Statement of the two leaders closely followed and further consolidated the official statements of the two leaders. As the two Heads of State reaffirmed their commitment “to a global comprehensive strategic alliance firmly rooted in the shared values of promoting democracy and the rules-based international order, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights”, “President Biden appreciated President Yoon’s initiative to embrace greater regional and global responsibilities, and enthusiastically welcome the ROK taking a leadership role in the Summit for Democracy process.”

Certainly, President Biden's first leg of his Asian trip had the role of reassuring President Yoon the United States will continue to support the Republic of Korea, in the aftermath of the four years of uncertainty during the Trump presidency. In this regard, it should be recalled that the US has signed a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea, which commits the two sides to provide mutual aid in case of external attack and allows Washington to station troops in the Republic of Korea, upon consultations with the government. By welcoming President Yoon's initiative to enhance a greater regional role, President Biden might have attempted to reassure the Republic of Korea of its real significance in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Trump's retirement from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which might have caused dissatisfaction among some Asian countries, was probably counteracted with extending the technological and economic dimensions of the US-Republic of Korea bilateral relations. In this regard, the statements of the two leaders could also be interpreted as a long-awaited return of the United States on the trade and economic landscape of Asia.

 

Kishida-Biden Meeting in Tokyo

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met the US President Joseph Biden in Tokyo, during Biden’s second leg of his Asian tour. While a joint statement following the meeting of the two leaders has not been so far identified, the White House readout states that “the two leaders committed to work closely together to address security challenges, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear and ballistic missile programs and China’s increasingly coercive behavior that runs counter to international law.” Moreover, Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden “agreed to deepen cooperation in areas such as emerging technologies, supply chain security, and clean energy.”

While China has not been specifically mentioned by President Biden in the first leg of his tour, namely in Seoul, the two leaders’ meeting in Tokyo witnessed multiple mentions of Beijing. According to Japan’s Prime Minister, “In East China Sea and South China Sea, the Japan and the United States will closely cooperate on responding to China-related issue, including human rights.” As the word “issue” is seldom used in diplomatic language, it may signal Japan’s firm position in this regard. Concerning Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Premier Kishida stressed that “Japan and the United States and Japan-U.S.-ROK to cooperate to even more closely was affirmed.”

In the same note, the Japanese Prime Minister stated his “determination to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities and secure a substantial increase of its defense budget needed to effect it”, adding that “The President [Biden, a.n.] stated that the United States will support Japan becoming a permanent member of a reformed Security Council.”

Certainly, the rather robust remarks of the Japanese Premier signal a significant shift in both Japan’s foreign and defense policy that will be noticed in the following months. While both Japan and Germany aim at increasing their respective engagements with the international community, including within the UN Security Council, provided the new developments in the Indo-Pacific, Japan seems to have significantly augmented its role in the regional architecture. Biden’s visit to Tokyo has certainly confirmed both the support granted by the United States to Japan, as well as the major role played by Japan in the Indo-Pacific region. Such developments indicate Tokyo is similarly ready to assume a more active role in the international community as well.

Despite President Biden having made no explicit references to China in his statement, during the Q&A session, the US leader responded positively to a reporter’s question whether the US is “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan”. President Biden further explained that “We agree with the One China policy; we’ve signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that — that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not a — is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger.”

As one might have expected, China reacted strongly; according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, press statement on Monday, May 23, 2022, “On issues that bear on China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and other core interests, no one shall expect China to make any compromise or trade-offs.” Such a statement could be related to the US President’s remarks on Taiwan. In a similar, yet less diplomatic note, Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief and party secretary of the Global Times – the official newspaper of the ruling party: “PLA’s (i.e. People’s Liberation Army) firepower in the Taiwan Straits has long surpassed that of US military. Biden says US military would defend Taiwan - does Biden wish to bring those soldiers back in coffins or let them sink into the Taiwan Straits to feed the fish? So, let’s cherish peace together.”

During his visit to Japan, President Biden’s has also officially launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) on May 23, 2022, together with his counterparts from India and Japan and high-level officials from 10 countries in Asia: i.e. Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Thailand, Malaysia, New Zeeland, Republic of Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Singapore, and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Considered by many to represent the economic response of the United States to other regional powers’ growing economic influence in Asia, IPEF may also be interpreted as a reaction on behalf of the United States to the willingness of Asian countries to intensify their trade links with Washington. In fact, IPEF has been launched five years after the White House – under the Presidency of Donald Trump – has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In the meanwhile, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the first free trade agreement among the largest economies of Asia, whose members make up for 30% of the global GDP, has entered into force five months ago.

The 13 countries which participated at the IPEF launching ceremony, generating aprox. 40% of the global GDP, have agreed to “launch collective discussions toward future negotiations”concerning the following pillars: Trade; Supply Chains; Clean Energy, Decarbonization, and Infrastructure; Tax and Anti-Corruption.

Despite the IPEF being, at the time, in its very early stages, the initiative marks the determination of the United States to markedly intensify its economic ties with Indo-Pacific countries, despite growing regional competition, as well as the availability of certain Indo-Pacific countries to collectively participate at discussions on the topic at hand. According to the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Taiwan will not become part of the IPEF, a move which some analysts have interpreted as a sign of cautiousness on Washington’s behalf.

 

The Quad Summit in Tokyo

The leaders of the four Quad nations, namely Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Joseph Biden of the United States, met on May 24, 2022, in Tokyo. The informal alliance remained “committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region” in a time of profound changes in both Asia-Pacific as in the world. It should be regarded in this context that Quad has announced a new maritime surveillance initiative, namely the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), which is expected to work based on the partnership with countries in “the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands by providing technology and training to support enhanced, shared maritime domain awareness to promote stability and prosperity in our seas and oceans”.While the joint statement of the four leaders did not mention any competing countries in the region, all the participating countries agreed to “strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the Indo-Pacific. Such changes have been defined as “militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia” as well as the “efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities”.

During their Summit, the leaders of the Quad agreed to extend over US$50 billion in order to address debt issues, provide infrastructure assistance and investment in the Indo-Pacific region.

While the “tragic conflict in Ukraine” has been mentioned in the joint statement at the end of the Quad Summit, no reference has been made in relation with Russia’s unprovoked military aggression on this country. As New Delhi has old and solid ties with Moscow, India did not condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine; in fact, India has maintained its views on Russia despite its membership in the Quad.

According to international media sources, bombers with nuclear capabilities from Russia and China flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea for 13 hours in formation, during the Quad Summit in Tokyo.

No reactions have been so far identified on behalf of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

As the next Leaders’ Meeting in 2023 has been set for Australia, demonstrating – as President Biden put it – that “Quad isn’t just a passing fad”, but rather an informal quadrilateral mechanism willing to consistently discuss and act based on the global and regional dynamics.

 

As one may envisage Beijing’s tough overtones and actions may continue in the future months, United States’ engagement with Asia seems to have gained momentum. Clearly the US-China competition in Asia-Pacific has generated a rather tense geostrategic landscape in both East and Southeast Asia. These regions, situated at the nexus of both US and China strategic, economic and foreign policy interests, have recently became some of the most significant focal points of the global arena. Whether such an evolution will rather offset the existing balance among Asia’s regional powers or will further extend the existing competition at Indo-Pacific level will be noticed in the near future.

Until then, no efforts should be spared – at all levels, national and regional – to avert in Asia the same course of events that have generated the Russian military aggression on Ukraine.

 

 

 

G.S.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.