May 25, 2022

Will the rhetoric of Biden’s Asian Odyssey stand up against China

President Biden accomplished an incredible array of policy goals in his five-day Northeast Asian swing. Perhaps most important of all, he repudiated the legacy of his predecessor, Donald Trump. There would be no more love-ins with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump professed to have “fallen in love” after their summit nearly four years ago in Singapore, and the U.S. would resume an aggressive role in gathering a host of nations together in a display of economic goodwill after Trump gratuitously yanked the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the day he was inaugurated as president in January 2017.

It’s a toss-up as to which of Biden’s avowed aims is more important. High on the list is his understanding with South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, for resuming real-live joint military exercises that Trump canceled as an unexpected bonus for Kim in the glow of the first few hours after the summit. The cancellation apparently was news to Jim Mattis, then the U.S. defense secretary, who wasn’t informed, much less consulted, about it. American and South Korean military commanders say it’s necessary for troops to coordinate in actual ground, air and naval exercises if they are to withstand a North Korean attack. The computer games the Americans and South Koreans have played since 2019 are fine but they’re no substitute for troops in action.

But agreement on joint war games is just one dividend of Biden’s visit to Seoul. When Biden got to Tokyo, he sought to relieve Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of doubts as to the depths of American support in case of a war with China over Taiwan. To Japan, a Chinese invasion of the island province, 100 miles off China’s coast, would present the specter of Chinese attack on Japan, beginning with takeover of the Senkaku Island grouping in waters near Taiwan.

Japan kept the Senkakus after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 while abandoning Taiwan, which it had ruled since defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Now Japan stubbornly holds on to the Senkakus against challenges by Chinese “fishing boats,” which the Japanese Coast Guard fends off with water cannon and mega-loudspeaker warnings. The “Nationalist Chinese” government of the Republic of China also lays claim to the Senkakus, but Taiwan is not aggressively pursuing its claim. In Taipei, President Tsai Ing-wen is far more worried about planes from the mainland intruding regularly on Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Biden did not dispute acknowledgement of the “one China” policy — under which the U.S. acknowledges Taiwan as a Chinese province — but he pleased Kishida by remarking that the U.S. will remain true to its “commitment” to Taiwan and join in its defense if China invades. He was safe in offering that reassurance. It’s clear, as he intimated, that China would not stage an attack that would result in a bitter war similar to that of resistance by Ukraine to Russia’s invasion. There was no departure from America’s long held policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan, which is purchasing vast amounts of U.S. military hardware even though no U.S. troops or even advisers are on the island.

Realistically, the economic component to Biden’s mission was just as important as the military. “Resilience” in the supply chain of semiconductors has been a major concern to manufacturers relying on a steady flow of chips for just about everything. That’s why Biden’s visit to Samsung’s huge plant, soon after landing at Osan Air Base south of Seoul on Air Force One on the first day of his trip, was of more than symbolic importance.

Economic understanding may have been the real centerpiece of Biden’s trip, as seen in the promulgation in Tokyo of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in which 13 countries, including the U.S., pledged to participate. The actual statement, however, was long on flowery language and short on specifics. What matters in the end is how, or even if, they will strive to achieve such lofty aims as fair and resilient trade, supply chain resilience, infrastructure and clean energy while reforming taxes and cleaning up corruption.

As if to round off his mission on an even more incredible high note, Biden on the last day drew together the leaders of what’s called “the Quad” — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. The Quad is obviously an anti-China grouping, and the four would appear to agree on the need to stand up to China. 

As in the case of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, however, the appearance of unity was a little deceptive. It was all very well to decry the war in Ukraine, but India’s Narendra Modi has not signed on to the idea of castigating Russia for the invasion. As in the days when the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles railed against “the immorality of neutrality,” India still does not want to offend Russia. And the dedication of Australia’s newly-minted prime minister, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who flew to Tokyo almost immediately after his election victory over the outgoing conservative Scott Morrison, was not certain, too, considering his background as a leftist who in younger days seemed almost anti-American.

Still, to superficial appearances, Biden’s trip was a resounding success, in which he said the right things, responded to the concerns of Korea and Japan, and got together a range of nations in pursuit of their own and American interests. So doing, he undid the damage done by Trump’s policies while challenging China’s aggressive intentions around its periphery.

Now it remains to be seen whether the rhetoric of Biden’s Asian Odyssey will stand up against challenges from China and divisions among the nations whom Washington would like to bring together. It’s not likely, for example, that South Korea and Japan will bury historic differences even though Korea’s President Yoon has promised to strengthen ties to the U.S. while disavowing the efforts of his predecessor, former President Moon Jae-In, in appeasing North Korea.

In the glow of all the summitry, Washington would like to believe Seoul and Tokyo are united in common cause. If they really are, then Biden’s mission will go down as a true success.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

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