Observations of an Expat: Biden Pivots Back

President Joe Biden is attempting a pivot back to Asia. After months of being forced by Ukraine to re-focus on Europe, the American president is organising an Asian month and his first presidential trip to the region.

It starts next week with a US-hosted summit of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders on 12-13 May and ends with visits to South Korea and Japan on 20-24 May and finally, a “Quad” summit in Tokyo on 24 May.

The trips to Seoul and Tokyo are an opportunity for President Biden to hold his first face-to-face meetings with Asia’s new diplomatic kids on the block—South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.

The president wanted to head to Asia much sooner. Biden was one of the chief architects of Barack Obama’s “Asia Pivot” and the White House spokesperson said that the trip demonstrates the administration’s “rock-solid commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Unfortunately for the pivot, Ukraine interfered.

South Korea’s President Yoon will be only 14 days into the job when Biden’s plane touches down, having been inaugurated on 10 May. And if he sticks to his campaign pledges, the new South Korean leader’s foreign policy will be a major departure from his predecessor Moon Jae-in.

President Moon took a decidedly conciliatory line in the face of a belligerent Kim Jong-un in North Korea. He was also careful to tread a wary path in relations with Beijing, mainly because China constitutes 25.8 percent of Seoul’s trade.

Yoon Suk-Yeol has declared that his top foreign policy priority is South Korea’s military pact with the US and that a tough military stance is required. He has called for “aggressive deterrence” which includes more military exercises with the 28,500 US troops based in South Korea and the deployment of additional US-made Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile launchers. Yoon has also gone on record to say he would launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if there were clear signs that Pyongyang was planning an attack.

Finally, President Yoon wants to join the anti-Chinese Quad alliance of Japan, India, the US and Australia. In this ambition, however, he may be thwarted by Japan. Relations between the two countries are strained at the best of times because of historical enmity. Despite their geographic proximity, Tokyo represents less than five percent of South Korea’s trade. On top of that, Japan is keen to retain its position as the most important northeast Asian member of the Quad.

The US and Australia, however, want to extend the new alliance to a Quad-plus. South Korea’s strategic position plus its large well-trained military makes it a potential plum addition. So Canberra and Washington are planning to smooth Japanese feathers and balance the alliance by also inviting Vietnam and New Zealand to join their anti-Chinese club.

Japan’s main concerns are the South and East China seas, the Spratly Islands and Taiwan. The new Japanese Prime Minister, Kishida Fumio, had a reputation as a doveish foreign minister under the long premiership Shinzo Abe.  But he has become more assertive since assuming the top job. For a start, Fumio has lifted the long-standing cap of one percent of GDP on Japanese military spending. Secondly, following a virtual summit with President Biden, the two men agreed to consider changing their position on Taiwan from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity.” So far, however, both men have avoided clarifying exactly what is meant by “strategic clarity.”

Australia may have problems attending the Quad Tokyo summit planned for 24 May. Its federal elections will be held on 21 May. After the 2019 vote it took 11 days of negotiations to agree the new  government. One of Canberra’s main concerns is Chinese attempts to establish a military presence in their South Pacific backyard following a recent agreement between the Solomon Islands and Beijing to allow Chinese warships to dock on the islands.

Australia, Japan and South Korea are all keen supporters of NATO assistance for Ukraine’s fight against Vladimir Putin. India is the odd one out. Its history of close relations with Moscow—especially as regards military equipment—has pushed it into a position somewhere between neutral and pro-Russian. This has annoyed the other members of the Quad—especially Washington—who is also concerned about Narendra Modi’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

Finally, there is the Quad’s target—China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US had scored a diplomatic victory in persuading Beijing not to provide military assistance to Putin in his fight with Ukraine. That was an overstatement. The Chinese are masters of Realpolitik. President Xi Jinping was less influenced by threats from Washington and Brussels then he was at the prospect of the consequences of being committed to the losing side.

The Chinese leader is still carefully watching Ukraine in case—against all the odds—the situation shifts to Putin’s favour. He is also watching Biden’s attempt to re-establish America’s Asia pivot.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • David Evans 7th May '22 - 11:37am

    I hope Tom is slightly wrong in his assessment of Joe Biden when he says “President Joe Biden is attempting a pivot back to Asia. After months of being forced by Ukraine to re-focus on Europe, …”

    I sincerely hope that Joe realises that the biggest, most immediate and most lethal threat to the our shared liberal democratic values, liberties, way of life and indeed our very existence are the forms of totalitarian Communism promoted and exemplified by Russia *and* China.

    I hope and pray that Joe, his Administration and indeed the USA, Europe, the UK and all other freedom loving nations can keep their attention on two fundamental threats simultaneously.

    While Europe may give most of its attention to Russia and Ukraine, it must support the US and our other friends in the Asia Pacific region as well, while Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and others naturally focus on China’s expansion in their local patch but still support us as much as they can in our endeavours.

  • Thomas Seelye Arms 7th May '22 - 8:16pm

    I too hope that I am wrong

  • Steve Trevethan 8th May '22 - 8:08am

    Might it be relevant to point out that the U. S has some 750 foreign bases and China has 1?

  • David Evans 8th May '22 - 3:42pm

    Hi Steve, I might just suggest that the PRC has quite a few more than those recorded Wikipedia. It’s just that they define them as something else, because they don’t want the West to know that they have them, and the West doesn’t identify them, because We don’t want them to know that we know.

    However, I would start by looking at the fortified islands in the South China Sea, Anywhere with large Chinese infrastructure, and significant Chinese nationals running/overseeing it; North Korea – China’s equivalent of the the Wagner group with Nuclear Weapons; anywhere with Chinese peacekeepers, anywhere with huge Chinese debts – the Solomon islands soon. Etc. Etc. Etc.

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