U.S. President Joe Biden travels Thursday to South Korea and Japan — his first trip to Asia since taking office — following his summit with Southeast Asian leaders at the White House last week.
In Seoul, Biden will meet newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, against the backdrop of North Korea's ballistic missile tests and coronavirus outbreak.
In Tokyo, Biden will participate in the Quad partnership summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and either Prime Minister Scott Morrison or his contender Anthony Albanese — depending on who wins Saturday's Australian election. It will be the Quad's fourth meeting and second in-person session since the alliance was revived in 2017 to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration's spotlight on the Indo-Pacific is a clear signal that the region remains its priority and China its greatest strategic challenge, even as it responds to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan characterized the concurrent trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific coalition-building as an "integration" and "symbiosis" in strategy.
"President Biden's unique capacity to actually stitch those two together is, I think, going to be a hallmark of his foreign policy," Sullivan told reporters Thursday.
Some key issues to watch:
The trip will convey an "affirmative vision of what the world can look like if 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. "We think it will be heard in Beijing."
Observers say Biden will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and use the Ukraine crisis to signal that unilaterally changing the status quo by force is as unacceptable in Asia as it is in Europe.
"The administration wants to make it very clear that there is strong support for Taiwan throughout the region, and that there is tremendous capability there as there has proven to be capability in the trans-Atlantic alliance vis-à-vis Ukraine," Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told VOA.
The Quad will also consult on tensions in the South China Sea and the recent security agreement between Beijing and the Solomon Islands that has triggered fears of a Chinese military base in the strategically important waters.
Canberra, a close neighbor, is very concerned, said Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute. "It has been fundamental to Australia's view of its own security that hostile powers should not be able to project force against Australia from the Pacific," she told VOA.
Overall, Beijing's modernization of its armed forces is pushing Quad countries to catch up, Charles Edel, Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. China's increased military spending in the past decade has led regional countries such as Singapore, Japan, Australia and Taiwan to purchase new weapons technology, mainly from the U.S.
Coalition against Russia
While the region's coalition is less robust than Europe's, Biden will encourage further resolve among partners to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tokyo, the strongest U.S. ally in the region, has placed financial sanctions and export controls on Moscow, announced a phase-out of Russian energy, and offered humanitarian assistance and nonlethal military aid to Ukraine. It also recently signed a defense cooperation pact with Britain that would allow the two G-7 countries to quickly deploy their armed forces for training and joint exercises.
South Korea's government, under former President Moon Jae-in, provided humanitarian assistance and supported international sanctions against Russia, but unlike Japan and Australia, did not impose sanctions. Newly elected President Yoon campaigned on strengthening the alliance with the U.S., which may provide an opening for Biden to secure greater support on the Ukraine issue.
In addition to sanctions, Morrison's government has provided military and humanitarian assistance to Kyiv. Patton noted that either Morrison or Albanese, if elected, would remain faithful to Australia's alliance with Washington and would not likely change policy on Ukraine.
India remains the region's weakest link concerning Russia. Recent statements by officials, however, signaled the Biden administration's understanding that it cannot push too hard and jeopardize India's critical role in the rivalry against China and wider co-operation in the Indo-Pacific, said Aparna Pande, director of Hudson Institute's Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia.
Pande told VOA that India recently halted negotiations to acquire 10 Kamov Ka-31 helicopters following uncertainties in Russian arms supplies, which may create an opening for Quad countries to persuade New Delhi to take a firmer stance on Ukraine.
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
In Tokyo, Biden is scheduled to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the centerpiece of his administration's economic policy in the region. The IPEF will be Washington's first attempt to create a large-scale multilateral, Asia-focused economic strategy since the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional free trade agreement the Obama administration launched in 2016 and that former President Trump withdrew from in 2017.
There are scant details about the framework, other than that it would include standards to ease trade under various "modules" such as fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy and decarbonization; and tax and anti-corruption.
One thing is clear, the IPEF does not include the free-trade components that regional countries desire, such as tariff cuts and other market-access tools Washington has used to encourage partners to accept policies that may not benefit their short-term economic interests.
With Trump-era protectionist sentiments still running high, the administration and Democrats in Congress appear unenthusiastic about the political cost of opening American market access. Observers say this is the main reason the U.S. lacks a robust economic and trade strategy to counter China's increasing influence in the region.
To attract nations beyond those already aligned with American standards and rules on trade, the U.S. is adopting a pick-and-choose approach for IPEF, giving countries the flexibility of signing only on the modules they are interested in. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are among those who have signaled interest.
Biden is not scheduled to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but denuclearization of the peninsula and North Korea's COVID-19 crisis are set to be high on the agenda.
Pyongyang fired three short-range ballistic missiles last Thursday, the latest in a series of weapons tests this year. Officials are bracing for another one.
"We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan," Sullivan said, adding that the U.S. will adjust its military posture to ensure it is providing "defense and deterrence" to allies.
Last week's missile test coincided with Pyongyang's confirmation of its first case of COVID-19. North Korea is one of the very few countries not inoculating its population against the coronavirus — it has repeatedly turned down vaccine donations from the United Nations' COVAX program.
North Korean state media reported that leader Kim Jong Un has ordered nationwide lockdowns and a bolstering of the country's defense posture. Lockdowns could be disastrous to the country, which suffers from drought and food shortages. Observers say, however, that the COVID-19 crisis could provide an opening to boost engagement with Pyongyang.
In their March 2021 virtual meeting, Quad leaders pledged to supply 1 billion COVID-19 shots by the end of 2022 "to strengthen and assist countries in the Indo-Pacific."
The initiative is currently in limbo as the manufacturer, India's Biological E Ltd., has yet to receive the World Health Organization's Emergency Use Listing (EUL) it needs to distribute the doses.
With various vaccine manufacturers producing more than 1 billion doses of vaccines per month, observers say the problem lies in global distribution capacity rather than production targets. The Quad is expected to discuss how to best address the issue moving forward, as part of its vaccine diplomacy in the region.
Other issues of regional concern are also expected to be addressed, such as combating climate change, addressing rising energy prices and increasing supply chain resilience in various sectors including semiconductors.
Biden is expected to visit a Samsung Electronics chip manufacturing complex in South Korea. Last year, Samsung announced it is building a chip plant in the U.S. state of Texas, a win for the administration as it seeks to increase domestic chip production to compete with China and mitigate supply chain disruptions.