Joe Biden is today starting his first Asia trip as U.S. president, visiting South Korea and Japan with an unusual opportunity to cement alliances with these key Asia Pacific democracies. He will be mindful all the time of the threats presented by a nuclearized North Korea and by China, with its promise to conquer Taiwan, by force if necessary.
I'm watching Biden's first steps in Korea, where he has made a Samsung Electronics chip factory in Pyeongtaek his first stop. Samsung chief Jay Lee has been excused from attending his accounting-fraud trial to take Biden on a tour, where they're joined by new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Samsung in November announced a US$17 billion chip factory near Austin, Texas, and is showing off its advanced 3-nanometer chips for the first time on Biden's visit.
During his five-day Asia stay, Biden will find fertile ground to forge friendships with new U.S.-friendly leaders in both Tokyo and Seoul, arguably the best opportunity in two decades to do so. Rivals China and North Korea, meanwhile, are both battling Covid-19 outbreaks that undermine domestic popularity for the leadership in Beijing and Pyongyang.
Still, U.S. and South Korean intelligence suggests that North Korea may well test another long-range intercontinental ballistic missile during Biden's visit, or possibly even conduct its first nuclear-bomb test since 2017. Biden cancelled an intended trip to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, and there's been no progress on denuclearization talks since he became president.
Biden arrives in Asia at a time that leaders have newly taken office who have pledged to improve relations with the United States. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida moved into the Kantei on October 4, while Yoon was inaugurated on May 10. Yoon may push for South Korea to join "the Quad," the alliance of Pacific democracies that currently consists of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
The U.S. president is due for a summit with Yoon on Saturday, then will fly to Tokyo on the next day, where he is set to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework on Monday, May 23. The framework is a U.S.-led initiative designed to counter criticism that the United States has focused only on security issues in Asia. China champions the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free-trade deal that went into effect with 14 other Asia Pacific nations on January 1. But the United States has been accused of an "all guns and no butter" approach.
The "IPEF" is very vague and in its early days. An early draft obtained by the Financial Times shows that member nations have agreed only to "launch negotiations" on trade. But even that assertion may be watered down in a planned two-page statement simply to say the countries are starting consultations that could lead to negotiations that might amount to something. Phew. The language was literally being finalized on the Air Force One flight to Seoul.
Biden is attempting to undo some of the damage done when former president Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an executive order Trump literally signed on Day 1 when he took office in January 2017. Kishida in Tokyo will likely nudge Biden to consider rejoining the recast 11-nation partnership, which Japan had championed, although there's been no indication the United States is considering that.
The IPEF will be a weak TPP substitute. It does not include any improved access to U.S. markets for Asian nations, whereas the TPP promised free-market access for many goods. But the IPEF will attempt to address infrastructure, supply-chain resilience, clean energy, and digital trade. Kishida will join Biden at the unveiling, with South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore likely to join Japan and the United States in the deal.
Biden will then attend a Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24. The four-way partnership has risen in profile since it was rebooted in 2017, having been on hiatus since Australia withdrew in 2008 in a bid to improve Aussie relations with China. How things have changed. Australia is once again "all-in" on the Quad, and is now instead embroiled in trade disputes with China, which it has also accused of meddling in domestic politics to the extent of attempting to get a Beijing "agent" elected to national office.
The Quad, whose leaders met in person in September at the White House, has made progress on public health with the Quad Vaccine Partnership, pledging 1.2 billion vaccine doses globally, and on infrastructure. It has also formed a coordination group to "deliver transparent, high-standards infrastructure" in the region, a response to China's Belt and Road Initiative. It is also working on green energy, lower-emissions shipping and high-tech supply chains for goods like semiconductors.
But it has yet to make much obvious headway in handling the military threat China poses in the Pacific. Beijing has basically gotten away with its island-building program to construct missile, naval and air-force bases on islands in the South China Sea. There's been deadly conflict on the Himalayan border between Indian and Chinese troops, where China has again built structures in contested no-man's land.
Most recently, Australia in particular has been alarmed by a security pact China has struck with the Solomon Islands, which could see Chinese troops based in the island nation. U.S. officials have said they would need to respond to any deployment of Chinese paramilitary troops to a country that saw heavy fighting on Guadalcanal during World War II, after Japan built naval and air bases there. Aussie defense minister Peter Dutton said in response to the China-Solomon security pact agreed in April that "Australia should prepare for war," claiming China is "on a very deliberate course at the moment."
The leadership in Canberra is in question. Australia holds national elections on Saturday, in which it is mandatory to vote. The opposition, left-leaning Labor Party holds a very slight edge over the conservative Liberal Party, and its unpopular Prime Minister Scott Morrison, or "ScoMo." If there's a change in leadership, it'll be a scurry to take part in the IPEF signing and the Quad summit, with Biden due to meet the leaders of India and Australia on the sidelines.
Unusually, a group of around 25 independent candidates known as the "teals," almost all women with successful careers, may hold the balance of power in Australia. Inaction on climate change has fueled frustration with the "gray-haired men fighting for power," as Damien Cave put it in The New York Times, in a country that produces the world's highest levels of coal-generated greenhouse gas per person, and that faces devastating now-annual bushfires and floods.
One of Biden's key differences from his predecessor on the foreign-policy front is his ability to forge multinational diplomatic alliances. He held a summit at the White House on May 12-13 for the leaders of the nine Southeast Asian nations in ASEAN, at which they agreed to strengthen economic ties, improve health security, collaborate on smart manufacturing and develop renewable energy. Most pointedly, they pledged maritime cooperation and to maintain "the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity," noteworthy since China claims almost all of that sea as its own territory.
Biden noted a joint desire to see an Indo-Pacific that is "free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure." The United States committed US$150 million in infrastructure initiatives with ASEAN op top of support of US$100 million made after Vice President Kamala Harris visited Southeast Asia in August.
Former president Donald Trump alienated just about everyone, and championed an isolationist policy of the United States going it alone. He opted to skip ASEAN meetings when he was in power. Given Trump's antagonism toward NATO, which he repeatedly hit up for money, it is hard to imagine him having any success calling on Europe to present a united diplomatic front against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Then-German chancellor Angela Merkel was pretty upfront with her disdain for Trump; French President Emanuel Macron backed off their early "bromance," saying the lack of U.S. leadership under Trump had led to NATO's "brain death."
Trump saved his warmest words for hardmen dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing Putin's early moves in Ukraine as "genius." Putin "was a friend of mine," Trump told the golfer John Daly in March. "I got along great with him." His attempts to curry favor with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un led to a great photo op as Trump became the first U.S. president to step across onto North Korean soil, but ultimately produced no progress on the diplomatic front.
Trump also criticized the "horrible" terms of trade with South Korea. He took Japan to task for not buying enough U.S. autos, while ignoring that many American models are way too big for Japanese streets. That informed a decision to impose higher tariffs on Japanese steel. Trump criticized Japan and South Korea, too, for failing to pay enough for the U.S. troops stationed on their soil.
The Biden administration rolled back the Trump-era tariffs on Japanese steel as of April 1. With this first Asia spin, Biden will be hoping to strengthen U.S. influence across the Pacific, both in terms of the economy and the security of the region. These first small steps may help improve the direction of U.S.-Asia policy, after many Asian nations began to sense that Washington was retreating from Asia. The United States, and its leader, are back here in Asia again.