President Joe Biden is headed to South Korea and Japan, but make no mistake — this week’s Asia trip is all about China.
Though he’ll be landing on friendly shores, his first visit to Asia as president has high stakes: He needs to coax allies into a lasting security and economic alliance to offset China’s growing regional influence.
Biden will leverage his four-day trip — it begins Friday with a stop in Seoul, then Tokyo — to rally support for his China-countering Indo-Pacific Strategy and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a regional trade plan he’ll launch in Japan. The visit follows last week’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit that made a similar pitch to Southeast Asian leaders.
It’s a slightly delayed play for regional influence from an administration that came into office determined to focus on China as the pacing threat to the United States. But the collapse of Afghanistan and a land war in Europe have occupied attention over the past year.
Beijing clearly senses a threat from the administration’s Asia pivot. “China opposes the creation of bloc-antagonism or separatist confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., told POLITICO. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a similar pitch to South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on Monday, urging him in a phone call to “prevent the risk of a new Cold War, and to oppose confrontation between the two camps.”
Wang took a tougher line Wednesday in a phone call to Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. “Wang Yi pointed out that the Japanese side will soon host a summit of the ‘Quadrilateral Mechanism’ between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. What is of concern and vigilance is that the so-called Japan-U.S. joint effort to confront China has been rampant before the U.S. leader has made the trip,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.
Also Wednesday, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, complained to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, that “the U.S. side has taken a series of wrong words and actions to interfere in China's internal affairs and harm China's interests.” Yang warned that “China will take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
The White House messaging around the visit offers Beijing little comfort.
“The message we're trying to send on this trip is a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road to define the security architecture of the region to reinforce strong, powerful historic alliances,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “We think that message will be heard everywhere, [and] we think it will be heard in Beijing.”
Biden’s success hinges on his vision of a rejuvenated U.S. coalition with regional allies rattled by China’s increasingly aggressive military posture. The president is also hoping that North Korea’s worsening nuclear threat can bridge longstanding tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. And the White House wants to leverage international dismay at Russia’s Ukraine invasion to pry India from its longstanding alignment with Moscow.
“These two weeks of Asia meetings are a great signal to an important part of the world that we haven't forgotten about them, but progress on economic matters is what's going to really count,” said James A. Kelly, former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “The economic behemoth China has become is very important, but it also has that wolf-warrior diplomacy, and it kicks the hell out of the shins of any middle-sized nation that antagonizes it, so there is an important [U.S.] role in security and economics in the Indo-Pacific.”
The success — or failure — of Biden's trip depends on how well he navigates five key challenges:
Seoul and Tokyo’s bilateral bitterness
A key plank of Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy is fostering close cooperation among U.S. allies and partners, particularly Japan and South Korea.
That's easier said than done. Rancor over trade, territorial disputes and historical grievances linked to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of South Korea have curdled bilateral relations in recent years. Japan’s removal of South Korea from a list of preferred trading partners in 2019 infuriated Seoul, prompting Kim Hyun-chong, then South Korea’s deputy national security adviser, to accuse former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of equating South Korea with a “hostile nation.” Kim and Abe and the administrations they served in are no longer in power, but the bilateral tensions remain.
Biden needs to convince South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office May 10, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that their strained relations undermine his Indo-Pacific strategy. “It would be a wonderful opportunity for President Biden to recognize that the so-called history debate problems in the region have become security threats … that lead to diplomatic standoff,” said Alexis Dudden, history professor at the University of Connecticut.
Yoon and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi pledged last week to repair the relationship. But a quick fix is unlikely.
“I'm not overly optimistic because I've been watching this relationship for decades, and when things get tough from a domestic standpoint, politically it is often easy to revive these tensions as a means to unify political will within a given country,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), former U.S. ambassador to Japan, told POLITICO.
Countering North Korea’s nuclear threat
Yoon will press Biden to place tactical nuclear weapons under U.S. command in South Korea, a plank of his campaign platform that Washington has so far dismissed. “U.S. policy would not support that,” said Mark Lambert, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Japan and Korea, in September.
The U.S. positioned tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula for decades before withdrawing them in 1991 as an incentive to North Korea to abandon its then-nascent nuclear weapons program. The U.S. has since then relied on its nuclear submarine fleet as a deterrent to North Korean aggression.
North Korea’s deepening of those efforts may prompt a rethink of that position. Pyongyang has tested 14 potentially nuclear-capable ballistic missiles so far this year. And more tests are imminent.
“Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including a long range missile test, or a nuclear test or frankly both in the days leading into or after the President's trip. We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” said Sullivan. “We are prepared obviously to make both short- and longer-term adjustments to our military posture as necessary to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region and that we're responding to any North Korean provocations.”
Last month, both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned they would respond to any attack by South Korean forces with nuclear weapons or even launch a preemptive nuclear attack if threatened.
“What the Kim siblings seem to be doing is copying a page out of Putin's playbook and normalizing the right to threaten nuclear war and to strike first with nukes,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “The South Koreans will float the notion of deploying U.S. [nuclear] assets on a rotational basis in South Korea or in its vicinity, meaning Japan, on the premise that the status quo only emboldens North Korea to become more aggressive to extort and bully the South, further pushing the Kim regime in the direction of gambling that a Russia-style invasion is a possibility.”
Biden is unlikely to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula barring a dramatic uptick in North Korean threats. Instead, Biden will seek to placate Yoon’s concerns by approving his request for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile systems to counter North Korea’s missile threat, a move certain to enrage Pyongyang and Beijing.
South Korea and the Quad
Biden’s trip will climax with a meeting of the leaders of the Quad — an informal geopolitical grouping that includes the U.S., India, Australia and Japan focused on countering China’s rising economic, diplomatic and military power in the Indo-Pacific. Yoon will try to reach agreement on one of his China-related electoral promises: a move toward South Korean membership in the Quad.
South Korean engagement with the Quad — even if it falls short of full membership — will boost Biden’s objective of edging Tokyo and Seoul closer together.
“We have an interest in improving relations [between Japan and] South Korea … and getting South Korea more involved in the Quad will, by itself, start to do that,” Kelly said. “They can be invited to be part of [Quad] working groups to sit in on their meetings or be an observer — there are all kinds of lower-key ways to do it.”
Seoul may sweeten its bid to join the Quad by also pledging South Korean backing to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression. "I think Yoon will try to please Biden by saying he will move towards joining the Quad and he will support the U.S. on the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea issues … and perhaps even contribute arms and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine,” Lee said.
Taiwan is closely watching South Korean moves toward Quad membership with hopes that the grouping will allow the self-governing island to participate as well. “We have expressed an interest in some of the issues that the Quad addresses like global health and vaccines, artificial intelligence, space technology and science [collaboration],” Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s official representative to the United States, told POLITICO. “It’s also our understanding that the Quad at this stage remains within the existing membership, but we would welcome any opportunity to work with the Quad members.”
Selling the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo confirmed this week that Biden will formally launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, his signature regional trade initiative, while in Tokyo. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to our counterparts in the Indo-Pacific, and there’s a large demand by them for the United States to be more present and to have an affirmative economic strategy. And that’s what this is about,” Raimondo told reporters.
The initiative has sparked skepticism due to ambiguity about its scope and intent. What few details the administration has released suggest it will permit member countries to opt into commitments on issues like supply chains, digital regulation, clean energy and taxes. The deal won’t provide the traditional perk of increased market access, and it’s uncertain if it will include enforcement mechanisms needed to give it teeth. Biden will need to specify the carrots that the IPEF will render to persuade potential participants of its value.
Biden’s Cabinet has crisscrossed the region since November to build support for the arrangement. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are expected to be part of the initial launch. And U.S.-ASEAN Business Council President Ted Osius told POLITICO that Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are among the Southeast Asian nations likely to join the talks as well.
The framework is Biden’s response to competing trade pacts in the region, none of which his administration is keen to join. The U.S. previously backed out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral deal that China is now seeking to join. It’s also sitting out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and China.
But the White House has yet to name which countries will actually participate in the IPEF negotiations. That’s sparked speculation about whether more complicated trading partners like India, Vietnam or even Taiwan will be at the table.
The self-governing island has high hopes for IPEF membership and has taken Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his word that the U.S. won’t block its participation in the grouping. “Taiwan has expressed an interest in being part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework ... Blinken has indicated that no one will be excluded and so we understand this to be an evolving process, and we appreciate that an overwhelming number of bipartisan members of Congress have also written letters supporting Taiwan's participation,” Hsiao said.
But enthusiasm for the IPEF among Southeast Asian nations that are vital to U.S. economic and national security interests in the region remains uncertain. Even countries that decide to participate in negotiations that get underway during Biden's visit may not sign on to the final agreement. That has spurred doubts about whether the framework will deliver the economic punch that Biden administration officials have promised, and prompted business groups, U.S. lawmakers and trading partners to press the administration to do more. Biden’s reveal of the initiative’s details will squelch or amplify those concerns.
“[There’s] a great opportunity to take that Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that they're talking about and put a sector-specific free trade agreement in place that a number of countries that are our allies could accede to and that could be a very good starting point for continuing to deepen our [regional] economic ties,” Hagerty said.
Deepening India’s Quad involvement
Biden has made deepening engagement with India one of the 10 “core lines of effort” in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
“Underway between the United States and Europe is a desire to engage more fundamentally with India. There’s a recognition that in this new context, India in many respects is a swing state, and that it is in all of our best interests to try to work with India over time to bend its trajectory more to the West,” said Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last week.
That’s a challenge given India’s decadeslong alignment with Russia, hinged on Moscow's role as New Delhi’s largest weapons supplier. The Biden administration is seeking to displace that Russian influence with an arms sale to India valued up to $500 million, Bloomberg reported Tuesday. Another irritant is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unwillingness to criticize Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
“[That] makes India an outlier, a stance that has the potential to cause friction in the [Quad] if not managed carefully,” said Alison Szalwinski, vice president of research at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
The Biden administration is unfazed. “We believe that this summit will demonstrate both in substance and in vision that democracies can deliver and that these four nations working together will defend and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Sullivan.
Biden’s advantage is that India’s relations with China have soured since a festering border dispute erupted in hand-to-hand combat in the disputed Galwan Valley that killed 20 Indian troops in 2020. Beijing rubbed salt in the wound by appointing a soldier who had fought in that incident to be a torch bearer for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games in February. India's foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in March that a “normal relationship” is impossible until China withdraws troops from the border region.
“For India … [the] Quad is essentially 'political deterrence’ against China, but not a 'tactical weapon,’” said Rajiv Rajan, associate professor of international politics at Shanghai University’s College of Liberal Arts. “However, it will not be far-fetched if New Delhi begins to see it as tactical if India-China frictions intensify in the region and border clashes heighten.”
Biden’s national security team will insist that his Asia trip has no specific deliverables and that he seeks only to deepen solidarity among allies and communicate a clear U.S. economic and security commitment to the region. That alone is powerfully symbolic amid growing international dismay at China’s alignment with Russia’s Ukraine invasion and its saber-rattling at Taiwan.
But if he can return to Washington with a verbal commitment from Yoon on participation in the Quad and expressions of interest in IPEF membership from Seoul, Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra, Biden can claim victory in creating the foundations of a new U.S.-led regional bulwark against China’s growing influence and its “no limits” partnership with Russia.