North Korea blasted three ballistic missiles, including what likely is its largest ever, into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday hours after Joe Biden completed his first Asia tour as U.S. president. South Korea also said the North appeared to have experimented with a detonation device in preparation for a nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.
Meanwhile, Japan on Wednesday expressed "grave concern" to China and Russia after those countries flew bombers over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Pacific while the leaders of the "Quad" group of Asia Pacific democracies were meeting in Tokyo. Japan called the joint patrol by six Russian and Chinese bombers a "show of force" against Japan and a "provocation," as Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno put it.
The joint air operation by China and Russia is the first cooperative military effort since Russia invaded Ukraine. While China tacitly has supported Russia by failing to even call the Ukraine conflict a "war" or "invasion," this was a clear sign that China would stand by its ally on its eastern borders in particular despite international condemnation.
The events, together with Biden's pledge to defend Taiwan militarily if it is invaded by China, ensure that geopolitics loom large behind any progress made on the economic front by the Quad nations.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-han, issued a joint statement condemning North Korea's missile tests as "destabilizing," committing that the two nations will work together on defense.
The leaders of the Quad met in person for only the second time on Tuesday, with new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese making the summit his first action in office following his election victory on Saturday. Biden and Albanese were joined by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Biden meeting each leader one-on-one as well. The Quad is expanding beyond its original security focus to work on investment and economic development in Asia.
The joint statement out of the Quad failed to mention Russia or China by name. But with China's island building in the South China Sea and its pledge to conquer Taiwan by force if necessary, China clearly was on the minds of the Quad leaders as they said this week they strongly oppose "any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions" that change the status quo or increase tensions in the region. Specifically, they are worried about "the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries' offshore resource exploration activities," a reaction to China's use of a militia fleet of beefed-up fishing vessels to prevent Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam from exploring the oil and gas reserves in the waters off their shores.
The Quad's origins
The Quad began as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with China complaining it is an attempt at an "Asian NATO." It has taken on recent prominence in response to China's military and economic expansion in Asia. The Quad leaders held their first meeting virtually in March 2021, then met in person for the first time during a summit at the White House last September. They pledged in Tokyo to gather again next year in Australia.
"Peace and stability" is still Item No. 1 on the Quad's agenda upon the conclusions of the meeting in Tokyo, with Biden calling this a "dark hour in our shared history," referring primarily to Ukraine. But the leaders expressed concern about freedom of navigation and flight in Asia, denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, the political oppression in Myanmar, and terrorism, specifically recent attacks in India and Afghanistan.
The Quad is increasingly involved in economic initiatives, foreign direct investment and social campaigns. The four countries have formed the Quad Vaccine Partnership, with the Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) COVID vaccine now in production in India. The partnership has donated Indian-made vaccines to Cambodia and Thailand and pledges more public health support.
On the business front, the Quad leaders in Tokyo pledged to invest in Indo-Pacific infrastructure, extending US$50 billion in financing over the next five years. On climate, the group has launched "Q-CHAMP," the Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package, to support "clean energy," greener shipping and disaster risk reduction.
Another new initiative this week is the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. This will look to combat illegal fishing as well as respond to natural disasters, developing data sharing that better tracks shipping movements in the vast Indian and Pacific oceans. Separately, the group announced the Quad Fellowship, which will sponsor 100 students from the four countries to pursue graduate degrees in scientific fields in the United States. Application for the fellowships is live here.
Biden leaves Asia with the legacy of the Quad summit as well as the presentation of the 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The framework doesn't lower tariffs on trade but looks to establish standards and connections that will make it easier for companies in those countries to do business with each other.
China isn't happy
The Global Times, the state-run newspaper often used to promote China's foreign policy position, says in an editorial today that the IPEF is a "big question mark" and it refers to the Quad as a "sinister gang" intended to contain China. It noted the Quad's shift from an "Asian NATO" into economic initiatives, but says that's a smokescreen for "sinister tricks." The maritime domain-awareness partnership, for instance, is just using "illegal fishing" to target China's fleet, the paper says.
China is most infuriated by Biden's pledge that the United States military would defend Taiwan if the island is attacked. This is the third time that Biden has made the claim, as I outlined in greater detail on Monday. Qhile some analysts still believe Biden misspoke, I don't buy it. Last October and again on Monday, he used essentially identical language, promising "Yes," the United States would defend Taiwan, adding both times that the United States has a "commitment" to do so. That was on top of a pledge last August to defend Japan, South Korea and Taiwan if attacked.
The United States previously has promised to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself but has stopped short from saying the U.S. military itself would react to an invasion. Biden's response on Monday even came in response to a question as to whether the United States would act differently from Ukraine and would defend Taiwan militarily, directly. The U.S. Commander in Chief answered in the affirmative, and very clearly.
Emerging nations in Asia may find little incentive to buy into U.S. standards on services, data usage and financial transactions without any improved ability to sell goods into the United States, so it remains to be seen how effective or expansive the IPEF will be. The Quad may be increasing in prominence but has yet to produce concrete results in terms of economic development in Asia. There are six "leader-level working groups" that must now take up the baton as the leaders themselves move on.