Biden, after months focused on Ukraine, makes first trip to Asia

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras
President Joe Biden poses with other leaders on the White House lawn during a summit of Southeast Asian nations earlier this month.

For almost three months, President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy aides have been immersed in the Russian war in Ukraine, wrestling with how to punish Moscow and bolster the beleaguered Ukrainians. On Thursday, Biden embarks on his first trip to Asia, hoping to reassure Asian allies that the United States is not too preoccupied with Ukraine to take a leading role in blunting the influence of China.

Biden has called China America’s chief global competitor. As the war in Ukraine settles into what may be a long slog, Biden is seeking to show that his administration can multitask when it comes to leading coalitions against aggressive superpowers.

Biden lands in South Korea on Friday and heads to Japan three days later. “I think both countries are naturally worried – not because they doubt U.S. desire or U.S. aspiration, but more about the bandwidth the U.S. really has,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a foreign affairs think tank.

Biden announced a strategy for the Indo-Pacific region in February, but then “the war happened and we see that the U.S.’s primary attention has been bogged down in Ukraine,” Sun said. Now, he added, Biden hopes to reassure Asian countries that “the U.S. is committed to the region, and is not going to let the war in Ukraine completely distract from the region.”

The president’s five-day trip includes meetings with South Korea’s newly elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Biden will also hold a summit with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan as part of a meeting of the so-called Quad, a strategic partnership formed in part to counter China’s ascent.

Biden faces a host of challenges on the trip, including a looming intercontinental ballistic missile test by North Korea that threatens to upend his plans. South Korean officials said Wednesday that Washington and Seoul are preparing a joint command-and-control “Plan B” in case Pyongyang conducts a missile test this weekend.

North Korea has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests so far this year, and China and Russia have drawn closer to North Korea in an effort to reduce U.S. influence in the region. Leaders in Seoul said Wednesday they plan to discuss ways to strengthen the deterrence capabilities of the United States and South Korea in the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear and weapons program.

Speaking Wednesday at the White House, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said U.S. intelligence reflects the “genuine possibility” of a North Korean long-range missile test or nuclear test in connection with Biden’s visit. He said he had spoken with allies, including his counterpart in China, about what would happen if North Korea adopts a more aggressive posture.

“We are prepared to make both short- and longer-term adjustments to our military posture as necessary to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region and that we are responding to any North Korean provocation,” Sullivan said.

Biden also plans to unveil his banner economic vision for the Asia-Pacific region. But he faces a steep credibility gap, particularly in Japan, where officials are still reeling after the United States, under President Donald Trump, pulled out of a major trade agreement in 2017 that it had brokered in the region.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said this week that while his country still wants the United States to return to the free-trade deal originally known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Biden’s new “framework” shows his commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and to seeing the United States included in a new economic order there.

Yoon, South Korea’s new president and a first-time politician, seeks to show his commitment to becoming a stronger ally of the United States and taking a more assertive role on the global stage as the world’s 10th-largest economy, rather than shaping foreign policy goals solely related to the country’s volatile neighbor to the north.

With the U.S.-China competition and the Russian invasion of Ukraine reshaping the global order, it is increasingly important to reinforce the power of alliances, said Ahn Ho-young, a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.

“We’re very lucky that Mr. Biden is the president. He has been emphasizing the importance of alliances all the time,” Ahn said. “It is encouraging that he is coming to South Korea so early in the presidency of Yoon Suk-yeol.”

In Japan, Kishida and Biden are expected to affirm their joint interest in peace in the Taiwan Strait amid China’s assertiveness toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing considers a breakaway province. Japan has dramatically stepped up its foreign policy efforts since the invasion of Ukraine, determined to show strong coordination with Western allies and counter the risk that China will be emboldened by Russia’s aggressiveness.

Biden hosted Southeast Asian leaders at the White House last week, and U.S. officials announced $150 million in investments in Asia related to clean energy, maritime cooperation, COVID-19 and climate change. Still, China is the biggest trade partner of the Southeast Asian countries, tallying $685 billion, about double the figure of U.S. trade with the region.

Biden campaigned on his foreign policy experience, saying he was best qualified to mend international relationships that had frayed badly under Trump’s “America First” policies. Officials in Japan and South Korea, however, were startled by Biden’s rocky pullout from Afghanistan, and they still fear the return of Trump – or some version of Trumpism – to the White House in 2024.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan during the Trump administration, praised Biden officials for continuing to elevate the importance of the Quad to blunt Chinese influence. He said Chinese leaders are closely watching U.S. actions toward Russia and Ukraine, and that they paid close attention to the botched pullout from Afghanistan in August.

“President Xi is watching all of this, and the fall of Afghanistan really was the biggest hit of all in our credibility with adversaries,” said Hagerty, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In June 2019, Trump met with North Korean President Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and briefly crossed into the isolated state, becoming the first sitting president to do so. He talked with Kim for nearly an hour.

But the Trump-Kim relationship vacillated wildly. During early tensions, Trump dismissed Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” while the North Korean leader called Trump a “dotard.” Later, however, Trump said Kim “wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters,” adding, “We fell in love.”

Biden will not visit the DMZ, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in Wednesday’s briefing.

Biden visited Asia several times during his years as a U.S. senator and as vice president. He has framed his foreign policy in large part around the notion that democracies need to show they can still deliver for their people more effectively than autocracies. He has said his mission is “to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back authoritarianism’s advance.”

In his first foreign policy speech, Biden called China America’s “most serious competitor” and outlined his administration’s stance to counter its emergence, saying, “We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance.”