President Joe Biden has embarked on a six-day visit to South Korea and Japan aimed at demonstrating the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region amid China’s rise and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The US leader is expected in South Korea on Friday evening.
After a three-day visit that includes a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, he will leave for Japan on Sunday for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, however, is being overshadowed by what US officials have called a “real risk of some kind of provocation” from North Korea, including a nuclear or a missile test.
In Seoul and Tokyo, Biden will discuss the North’s nuclear programme as well as the US’s economic and security ties with its two treaty allies in Asia. He is also likely to seek improved relations between South Korea and Japan after ties soured over historical feuds and territorial issues during the presidency of Moon Jae-in.
In Tokyo, Biden will also convene a summit of the leaders of the Quad grouping – which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia – and launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an agreement that seeks to set standards on supply chains, worker protections, decarbonisation and anti-corruption.
“The main objective of Biden’s trip to Asia is to shore up the support of key Asian allies for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University. “There is concern that the Biden administration has got its hands tied in Ukraine war when the real threat is China and the key region of the US interest in the Indo-Pacific, not Europe.”
Biden’s visit, therefore, is aimed at showing that supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression is “closely related” to supporting its Asian allies counter China’s growing economic and military clout in the region.
“The Ukraine war is all about upholding the rules-based international order (RBIO), wherein the norm of sovereignty is the cardinal norm of international relations. Russia has violated that norm and invaded Ukraine. It should be stopped at all costs short of committing boots on the ground. The US Indo-Pacific is also about protecting RBIO in the region,” said Kim.
The White House has said Biden’s aim is not so much about confronting China, but sending a “powerful message” to Beijing and others about what the world could look like if democracies “stand together to shape the rules of the road”.
To that end, Biden’s Asia trip is also “fundamentally about” building personal ties with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters en route to South Korea.
“In both cases, he’s looking for the opportunity to just spend time to get to know these leaders … so that when they need to pick up the phone in a crisis or to respond to a major world event, there’s a baseline of trust and understanding and almost like a common operating language,” he said.
Biden’s meeting with Yoon will be his first. The South Korean leader, who was elected in a closely fought election in March, was inaugurated on May 10.
Biden and Kishida, who took office in October of last year, have met in person once before, on the sidelines of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November last year.
Hours before Biden’s arrival, Yoon sent his “sincere welcome” to the US president.
“A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it,” he wrote in the first-ever tweet from his official account. “I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future,” he added, referring to South Korea by its formal name, the Republic of Korea.
Yoon’s priority for Biden’s visit will be to “establish the ROK-US alliance as a central axis for building and strengthening East Asia and global peace and prosperity”, according to an aide to the South Korean president, in the face of increased provocations from North Korea.
Pyongyang has carried out a record 16 weapons launches this year and US and South Korean officials say it may be preparing to test a nuclear weapon, perhaps during Biden’s three-day visit, despite grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected an estimated two million people.
“There is a genuine possibility, a real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or in Japan, that could take the form of a nuclear test, the seventh nuclear test that North Korea’s conducted. It could take the form of a missile test,” Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One, the president’s plane.
He added that Washington is prepared to respond to such an event.
“We have communicated not just our allies but with China, that this would cause the United States only to increase our fortitude in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region.”
Seoul and Tokyo align
Yoon has pledged a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor, including by seeking enhanced military drills with the US and the redeployment of US nuclear bombers and submarines to South Korean territory. But during his inauguration, he also promised an “audacious” economic plan if the North gave up its nuclear weapons.
Analysts say they expect the US and South Korea to pursue a North Korea policy that focuses on deterrence rather than diplomacy, unlike under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon.
“The significant conversation behind the scenes is going to be more around the question of how does the US effectively deliver credible extended deterrence to South Korea and what specific mechanisms does that look like,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think-tank.
And that includes discussions on “the positioning of nuclear-capable assets”, he said.
Another discussion point will be improving South Korea-Japan ties. Analysts say this is key, not only to address North Korea’s nuclear programme, but also for the US vision of a “free and open Indo Pacific”.