5 things to watch on Biden’s first trip to Asia as president
President Biden is making his first trip to Asia since taking office, traveling to South Korea and Japan to focus on the Indo-Pacific region even as much of the world’s attention remains on Ukraine.
Biden will meet with leaders of both countries, talk with business and technology leaders in South Korea and attend a summit of Quad allies, which include Japan, Australia and India.
Here are five things to watch for during Biden’s trip.
U.S. on alert over North Korea threat
The Biden administration is bracing for the possibility that North Korea conducts a provocative ballistic missile or nuclear test.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that U.S. intelligence suggests either kind of test is a “genuine possibility” during or around Biden’s trip to Asia.
North Korea has test-launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles this year, but doing so during a presidential trip to Asia would no doubt escalate tensions. Nuclear tests are much more rare; the last time Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test was in 2017.
Sullivan insisted that the administration is prepared for any provocations, noting the U.S. has spoken with countries in the region including China about the prospect of a nuclear or missile test by North Korea.
“We are prepared for those eventualities,” Sullivan said aboard Air Force One Thursday. “We know what we will do to respond to that.”
It’s unclear exactly how dramatically a ballistic missile or nuclear test would impact Biden’s trip.
Sullivan insisted Thursday it would only “underscore one of the main messages” of the Asia visit — that the U.S. is committed to defending its allies and responding to threats decisively. Officials have indicated the U.S. could change its military posture in the region in the event of North Korean provocation.
“Should that happen, we’ll take a look at our own security posture and footprint as appropriate,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.
China looms over visit
Biden will use the trip to deepen U.S. ties with its allies in Asia, at a time the administration is also trying to counter China’s economic and military influence in the region.
The administration has been careful not to be too confrontational with China, drawing a rhetorical contrast with the previous Trump administration. The Quad is widely viewed as an alliance meant to counter China, but the group does not characterize itself that way.
At the same time, Biden has been clear that he views China as the stiffest U.S. economic competition and has rebuked China over unfair trade practices and human rights abuses.
The administration has also warned China repeatedly over its military activities near Taiwan. U.S. officials are closely watching how Russia’s war in Ukraine influences China’s thinking on Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims to control.
China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, warned Sullivan over the U.S. support for Taiwan in a phone call earlier this week, according to a Chinese government readout.
“The message we’re trying to send on this trip is a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road,” Sullivan said Wednesday.
“We think that message will be heard everywhere. We think it will be heard in Beijing. But it is not a negative message, and it’s not targeted at any one country.”
How Biden confronts India
Biden will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a gathering of Quad alliance leaders at a time when India has thrown a wrench into the U.S. approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
India in recent days banned exports of wheat, citing concerns about its own supply. But India is the second-largest producer of wheat, and other nations were hoping its exports would be able to blunt some of the effects on global food markets as Russia and Ukraine are some of the largest producers of wheat.
India, the world’s largest democracy, previously continued to import Russian oil despite Western bans, and remained neutral in United Nations votes on human rights atrocities carried out in Ukraine, a break with other U.S. allies.
Biden met virtually with Modi last month, and deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh traveled to New Delhi for talks with Indian officials days before that call. This weekend’s meetings will give Biden and other leaders another opportunity to try and pull Modi more in line with the global response.
Joshua Fitt, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said he would not expect specific actions on Ukraine to be a major part of the Quad agenda, as it has been a source of differences among the leaders.
“The war in Ukraine has been a notable point of tension among the four quad countries given India’s initial reluctance to say anything contrary to the Russian position,” Fitt said, noting that there has been a shift in India’s rhetoric since the beginning of the war.
Is Ukraine a big topic
Even though much of the focus of Biden’s trip will be on relations with South Korea and Japan and how to confront China and North Korea, the war in Ukraine will loom over the weekend’s proceedings.
Just before departing for South Korea, Biden hosted the leaders of Finland and Sweden to throw his weight behind their bids to join the NATO alliance. While the leaders he will meet with this weekend are not part of NATO, he may still face questions about allaying concerns from Turkey about expanding the organization to include Finland and Sweden.
Japan and South Korea are among the countries that have imposed export controls in a bid to further isolate the Russian economy, and Biden is expected to meet with business leaders while in Seoul to underscore efforts to address supply chain and economic issues caused by the war.
And Sullivan acknowledged on Wednesday that the conflict in Ukraine and the Biden administration’s policies in the Indo-Pacific are intertwined.
“We think that there is something quite evocative about going from meeting with the president of Finland and the prime minister of Sweden to reinforce the momentum behind the NATO Alliance and the free world’s response in Ukraine, and getting on a plane and flying out to the Indo-Pacific not just to deal with security issues, but … to deal with Korea and Japan on issues that actually affect working people here in the United States, including major investments that will create jobs in states across the country.”
Bolstering economic ties
A key piece of Biden’s agenda while in Asia will be rolling out a new economic framework, which could provide a win for the president while inflation domestically continues to hound him.
While in Tokyo, Biden will launch what the administration is calling the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” which will outline efforts to regulate the digital economy, bolster supply chains and boost investment in clean energy and infrastructure.
That announcement alongside leaders from southeast and northeast Asia will come after Biden meets in South Korea with technology and manufacturing leaders who are investing in the United States.
The meetings in Asia come at a time when the White House has tried to tamp down inflation and address supply chain issues exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
“We think we go into this trip very much with the wind at our back, with a strong case to make that we have what it takes to be able to deliver against the security and economic challenges of our time,” Sullivan told reporters.
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