SEOUL — President Biden embarked on his first diplomatic mission to Asia since taking office on Thursday, hoping to demonstrate that the United States remained focused on countering China even as his administration led a war against Russia in Europe.
With his original strategy of focusing foreign policy attention on Asia, effectively blown up by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden has now moved on to the argument that there can be no compromise between Europe and Asia and that only the United States unite the democracies of the East and the West together to stand up to autocracy and aggression in both spheres.
For Mr. Biden, finding his balance between the two requirements will require geopolitical maneuvers that would challenge any president. The competing demands of his time and attention were on display Thursday as he pressed a last-minute White House meeting with the leaders of Sweden and Finland with the leaders of Sweden and Finland to welcome their decisions to join NATO. before going to Joint Base Andrews to board the Air Force One for the long flight to South Korea. And days before that, Biden hosted Southeast Asian nations at the White House to discuss new investments in clean energy and maritime assets, as part of an effort to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific.
“What the government is trying to do is credibly contribute to their claim that America is back as a world leader and to the idea that the world is not two theaters,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a scientist at Georgetown University who served as Asia. advisor to President Barack Obama when the original pivot to Asia was conceived. “It’s, ‘Hey, I won’t forget you; this is not a choice between Europe and Asia.’”
The war in Ukraine will no doubt follow Mr Biden during stops in Seoul and Tokyo, as he hovers over his talks with the leaders of South Korea, Japan, Australia, India and others. At the same time, government officials fear North Korea could use the president’s trip to put itself back on the global agenda with an in-your-face test of a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile, reminding everyone of dangers outside Ukraine.
“We are preparing for any contingency, including the possibility that such a provocation could occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters this week before Mr. Biden. left Washington. Sullivan has consulted his counterpart in China in recent days to discuss, among other things, the prospect of a North Korean provocation.
Mr. Biden’s journey is also intended to reassure allies in the region who had been upset in recent years by President Donald J. Trump’s unorthodox approach to Asia. Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-negotiated regional trade pact designed to counter China’s growing economic power. He repeatedly questioned US troops’ commitments to South Korea and the mutual defense agreement with Japan, while engaged in what he termed a “love affair” with North Korean Kim Jong-un.
Bruce Klingner, a longtime CIA analyst on Asia and now with the Heritage Foundation, said South Korea and Japan were becoming increasingly nervous about North Korea’s capabilities and Mr Trump’s threats to withdraw from the region. “Biden must give unequivocal assurances of the US commitment to the defense of our allies and affirm the comprehensive US deterrent guarantee of nuclear, conventional and missile defense forces,” he said.
A number of recent studies have concluded that while US political influence in the region has increased again with Mr Trump’s departure, the United States has continued to lose economic influence due to the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“The biggest criticism of the government in Asia right now is that they don’t have an economic strategy and they are ceding the field to China,” said Michael J. Green, the incoming chief executive of the United States Studies Center in Australia and a former Asia researcher. adviser to President George W. Bush.
To address that, Biden plans to unveil a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is a pale shadow of a full-blown trade pact but will outline several mutual priorities such as digital trade and supply chain security. US officials hope that many of the countries still in the Trans-Pacific Partnership will join the proposal.
Mr Green called that an important first step, but one that behind the scenes the Japanese, Australians and others find insufficient at the moment – although they are unlikely to say so publicly. “A lot of their interest is showing that the US is back and that China isn’t going to write the economic rules,” said Mr Green.
Matthew P. Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: if the Biden administration did not provide better access to the US market, countries in the region are said to be seeking direct funding to expand infrastructure and the digital economy. “I think a lot of partners will look at that list and say, ‘That’s a good list of problems. I’m glad to be involved,” said Mr. goodman. “But, you know, are we going to get tangible benefits from participating in this framework?”
In drafting the economic framework, Biden’s government officials have focused in part on labor and environmental standards. But without the benefits of lowered trade barriers, other countries may be reluctant to make expensive pledges.
“The bottom line is that the United States is not coming to the table with market access,” said Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘And that’s the trade piece. That is what the region is looking for.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
You said. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, bringing total US investment in the war to $54 billion in just over two months. The move is the latest evidence of the bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for helping Ukraine fight Russia.
During layovers in Seoul and Tokyo, Mr. Biden will meet two new partners who, according to Mr. Green and other analysts and officials, are both seen as more aligned with US priorities and likely to have good chemistry with the president. The first, President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea, was inaugurated on May 10 and has drawn closer to China and North Korea than his predecessor, while the second, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, was elected last October and enjoys a level of popularity that is likely to keep him in office for the duration of Mr Biden’s tenure, unlike the frequent revolving door governments in Tokyo.
“It is inevitable that North Korea will put itself at the forefront as part of the agenda for a Biden-Yoon summit,” said Scott A. Snyder, the director of US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. . “The very fact that that speculation exists makes it necessary for the two leaders to talk about comprehensive deterrence, how that works, and to try and deepen their shared commitment to security and defense.”
While in Tokyo, Mr. Biden will also meet other leaders of the so-called Quad – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – his second time sitting at the table with his colleagues in a bloc intended to bolster Chinese hegemony. resist in the region.
With Australian elections scheduled for Saturday, it remained unclear who would attend Tuesday’s meeting.
But arguably the most complicating factor is how Mr Biden approaches India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was hesitant to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for fear of undermining security ties with Moscow. In addition, Mr Biden’s promise to fight autocracies around the world will be put to the test with Mr Modi, who has marginalized and vilified minority Muslims.
But the president’s aides said he can put pressure on the international campaign to thwart Russian aggression while still navigating the diplomatic complexities of the Asia-Pacific region and reaffirming America’s role in this part of the world. .
“He remains focused on ensuring that our efforts in those missions are successful,” said Mr. Sullivan, “but he also intends to seize this moment, this pivotal moment, to affirm courageous and confident American leadership in another vital region of the world.”