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Biden tours Asia to reassure allies he is still focused on China

The US president will visit South Korea and Japan to reaffirm America’s regional policy in Asia.

By Emily Tamkin and Katie Stallard

WASHINGTON DC – The US president, Joe Biden, is heading on a four-day trip to Asia, first to Seoul, then to Tokyo.

Looming behind his visits to both South Korea and Japan is, of course, China. In his first address to both houses of Congress in 2021, Biden established that he considered China to be America’s main adversary, and that he would try to rally the world’s democracies to take on Chinese autocracy. In his State of the Union speech earlier this year, however, China was hardly mentioned. A bungled US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s war in Ukraine had pushed China from centre stage in the grand production that is American foreign policy.

On his Asian travels, Biden will try to remind America’s allies and partners, as well as its adversaries, that countering China is a priority, and that Russia’s war in Ukraine has not distracted the United States from its agenda in the Indo-Pacific and wider Asian region. But will it work?

Biden can expect a warm welcome in both Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol has already signalled his intention to align his country more closely with the United States, and he has a well-established relationship with Japan’s prime minister Kishida Fumio, who was foreign minister when he was vice-president.

Both leaders will be receptive to Biden’s efforts to show that the US is committed to its alliances in the region, and they share his views on the importance of countering China and upholding a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, as the US regional strategy puts it. Biden will also host a meeting of the Quadrilateral security dialogue [Quad] with the prime ministers of India, Japan and whoever wins the Australian election on Saturday.”

The aim of the trip is straightforward: to demonstrate that the US remains focused on this region. But the substance will be more challenging. Biden is not interested in rejoining the multilateral trade deal that Trump pulled out of – then known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now the CPTPP. The details of the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework [IPEF] that he is expected to roll out are decidedly vague, with no indication that it will come with increased access to US markets. The image of unity that the Quad meeting is designed to send will also be undermined by India’s continuing reluctance to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Still, perhaps the biggest challenge for Biden will be convincing his interlocutors that ‘America is back’ in the region for the long term, and that he is not about to be replaced by another Trump-like figure – or maybe actually Trump – in 2024. That, and US officials are warning that North Korea might be preparing an intercontinental ballistic missile launch to coincide with the trip.

In other words, the US wants to be influential in the region, but it’s not clear how long it will keep that goal or what its pursuit of that goal will look like – which is not exactly comforting to its partners. And it’s not completely clear what America is willing to give to be influential. What, tangibly, will the IPEF bring to the region?

The Quad presents a similar conundrum: the US is reportedly considering a military aid package to India to reduce Delhi’s military dependence on Russia. It is true that India does not buy as much military equipment from Russia as it used to and is open to purchasing from elsewhere, but it is also true that around 46 per cent has still come from Russia over the past five years, including its nuclear-powered submarine.

It’s one thing to say the US is a better partner to have than China or Russia. But every country has a different idea as to what “better” looks like, and what its price tag is.

[See also: George Bush’s Iraq War gaffe is unintentionally revealing]

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