Biden’s invisible foreign policy success

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As summits go, not only was it unusually substantive, rejuvenating a Trump-battered U.S. alliance, but it marked a measured economic and geopolitical tilt by Seoul toward the U.S. and away from China. The results were more than aspirational, with concrete agreements on headline issues – vaccines cooperation, $40 billion in South Korean high-tech investment in the U.S., climate action and coordinating approaches toward North Korea and the Indo-Pacific. 

Yet like the proverbial tree falling in the forest and nobody hearing it, President Biden’s summit with the president of a major U.S. ally, South Korea, was all but invisible to major papers and networks in the U.S. Maybe it was overshadowed by the latest Mid-East crisis. But by any measure, it was an important, if largely unremarked, demonstration of Biden making good on his foreign policy priorities.

The summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in was only Biden’s second face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader, following that with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, signaling the importance attached both to rejuvenating U.S. alliances and to the Asia-Pacific. 

Beyond the usual high-sounding rhetoric, it marked a milestone in shaping a 21st century partnership with a longtime ally, with concrete benefits to both sides. There was, for example, an agreement to meld Seoul’s need for vaccines – the U.S. will provide vaccines to the 550,000-member ROK military – with a joint effort to ramp-up production and global vaccine supply, as well as cooperation to reform the World Health Organization.

Perhaps most consequential was a rich agenda of technology cooperation, not least on security of supply chains, adopted at the summit. For starters, South Korean private sector firms announced some $40 billion in investment to manufacture advanced computer chips in the U.S. and also to work with Ford to produce e-car batteries and materials in the U.S. In addition, Seoul agreed to tighten scrutiny of foreign investment and to work with the U.S. to develop a software-based 5G known as Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN) that would create a new approach to 5G and its successor, 6G networks, not tied to Huawei or other Chinese-made hardware.

Though the word “China” did not appear in the leaders’ joint statement, press conferences or fact sheets, the economic and geopolitical cooperation agreed to at the Biden-Moon summit prompted China’s ambassador to South Korea to complain that Beijing was a “target.”

Target is probably the wrong word. But the tech and geopolitical steps declared at the summit will help both separate U.S. and Korean economies from dependence on China and make them more competitive. At the same time, Seoul appeared to tilt toward the U.S. Indo-Pacific geopolitical agenda.

For the U.S., these measures were a helpful step toward the bipartisan priority of increasing U.S. manufacturing of high-tech equipment and creating more secure supply chains. Some $40 billion in Korean private sector investment will build advanced computer chip manufacturing, and working with U.S. auto firms, will increase battery manufacturing for e-cars, 77 percent of which is done in China.

For South Korea, whose number one trade partner is China, it was a step to diversify its economy and build a high-tech partnership with the U.S. In addition, cooperating on an alternative, software-based approach to 5G can reduce dependence on Huawei hardware for more secure IT.

On regional and geopolitical issues, the summit, at least for the moment, papered over tactical differences toward North Korea, and declared a “shared commitment” to pursuing diplomacy to denuclearize and attain a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. This is mostly aspirational, as few see any signs that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is interested in renewing nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang has rebuffed initial efforts by the Biden administration to explore diplomacy. While the Moon administration would like to pursue North-South economic cooperation, Kim’s obstinance and continued efforts to strengthen his nuclear and missile arsenal offer little argument for easing U.N. sanctions. Seoul also agreed to emphasize a core interest of the U.S. — strengthening U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral intelligence and security cooperation, which has been impeded by Seoul-Tokyo tensions.

One important, though almost unnoticed concession Seoul gained at the summit was U.S. agreement to scrap guidelines on the limits of missile range (180 km), allowing it to build more capable missiles to compete with North Korea.

At the same time, South Korea, which has been trying to balance its economic dependence and geographic proximity to China with its alliance with the U.S., appeared to sign on to the U.S. agenda for the Indo-Pacific, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. This arrangement is an informal multilateral mechanism among four democratic nations (the U.S., Japan, Australia, India) with very capable navies. It is becoming the foundation of U.S. policy toward the Indo-Pacific, in contrast to an alphabet soup of regional institutions that have proven to be mostly talk shops. Seoul’s symbolic embrace of the Quad, an issue of intense debate in South Korea, was something of a statement. The degree to which Seoul aligns itself with the Quad, however, is an open question.

All told, the Biden-Moon summit appears to be a largely unrecognized milestone, transcending the U.S.-South Korea security alliance, putting a down payment on a vision of a global partnership between two technologically advanced, democratic G-20 nations. Perhaps China has cause for concern.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the under-secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags foreign relations Japan Joe Biden Kim Jong Un Military diplomacy Mobile telecommunications Moon Jae-in north korea china Presidency of Joe Biden Quadrilateral Security Dialogue South Korea United States foreign policy

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