Sometimes, what is not done is as significant or more significant than what is. And this is what happens on the trip that Joe Biden begins this Friday, the first of his term in Asia. The US president will visit South Korea and Japan, but will not travel to China, something that his predecessor, Donald Trump, did. Although absent from the route, Beijing will be the true protagonist of the tour with which the tenant of the White House intends to send – as he did in his summit with the countries of Southeast Asia last week – the message that, despite the war in Ukraine, Washington keeps the Pacific as its priority. And that he does not give up his rivalry with the Asian colossus.
A giant who has received the visit with enormous discomfort. “Even before the American leader’s trip begins, the view that Japan and the United States join forces to confront China is already widespread, creating a poisonous atmosphere,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attacked in conversation. with his Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi on the eve of the departure of Air Force One.
Also on the eve of the tour, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Wednesday with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, to discuss the tour, the war in Ukraine and “issues specific to the Sino-US relationship.” according to a White House statement.
Shortly after, Sullivan appeared at a press conference to talk about Biden’s trip: “The message we try to send on this trip is a positive vision of what the world can be like if democracies and open societies come together.” “[La visita] It will send a powerful message that we believe will be heard everywhere. We believe that it will be heard in Beijing, but it is not a negative message and it is not directed at a single country. It is aimed at audiences around the world,” he stated. The United States considers that its message resonates more strongly after its support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion, in an international pressure effort from which China has distanced itself.
In Seoul and in Tokyo, the American president will find receptive ears. In Japan he has governed since October Fumio Kishida, with whom he shares the vision of the values of liberal democracies. In South Korea, conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol has just taken office, in favor of a closer relationship with Washington and of expanding his country’s foreign policy towards a more global role, to give less priority to relations with South Korea. North.
Yoon has also shown signs of being open to a rapprochement with Tokyo, after the estrangement that characterized the mandate of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, for historical reasons. The prospect that Seoul – which for years has been considered the weakest link in the South Korea-Japan-United States triangle – could become more integrated into that orbit alarms Beijing. It is no coincidence that he sent Vice President himself, Wang Qishan, to Yoon’s inauguration on the 10th. Or that his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, spoke this Monday with his South Korean counterpart, Park Jin.
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“It’s been at least 20 years since an American president could travel to Japan and South Korea and count on the leaders of both countries being so supportive of the alliance,” says Michael Green of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). in Washington, in a talk with journalists. “Biden is going to meet with the strongest partners he could ask for, both in Tokyo and in Seoul.”
China was the dominant and almost only foreign policy topic discussed before the 2020 presidential elections. However, the chaotic departure of US troops from Afghanistan, first, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, later, “have required a tremendous amount of time, focus, energy and resources,” a senior US official recently acknowledged. Sullivan tried Wednesday to dodge that story by saying the two efforts feed off each other.
The US president will arrive in the region bearing gifts. In this case, in the form of an economic cooperation proposal, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will be signed in Tokyo and to which Seoul has already stated that it will join. In the region, IPEF is widely perceived as a coalition that excludes China from global supply chains.
The initiative seeks to return a US presence to the field of macro trade agreements signed in recent years in the region – the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Association, in its acronym in English) between countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Trans-Pacific Agreement of Economic Cooperation or CPTPP, mainly from Pacific States—. Former President Donald Trump withdrew at the time from the CPTPP (then called TPP) negotiated by the Barack Obama Administration. Now, Washington is also trying to correct the advantage given to China, an eager occupant of the void left by its rival – Beijing was a founder of the RCEP and has applied for membership of the CPTPP. But with far less substance than its alternatives, Biden’s proposed trade bill also represents an acknowledgment that current US politics has no appetite for endorsing anything that smacks of globalization.
As described by the US Department of Commerce, the initiative has four pillars: commercial and infrastructure development; clean energy, supply chains, and tax and anti-corruption issues. But it lacks one key attraction: It won’t offer Asian signatories greater access to US markets.
China had already expressed its opposition to Seoul’s accession. On Monday, Minister Wang warned his counterpart Park against “decoupling” from Seoul and the possibility of “breaking supply chains” with China. “We must respect our common interests,” said Wang, who urged “remain vigilant against the risk of a new Cold War.”
Tokyo will also host a summit of the Quad, the informal association between Japan, Australia, India and the US that tries to respond to China’s growing influence in the region. A summit that Beijing will scrutinize carefully. “We believe that this summit will demonstrate, both in substance and form, what democracies can give and that these four nations, working together, will uphold and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Sullivan said Wednesday. . There, the weakest link is India.
New Delhi shares the reticence of its partners before the Government of Xi Jinping, multiplied since in 2020 a violent clash between his troops on the border in the Himalayas ended with Beijing advancing a few meters on the ground that both countries dispute. But he awaits reproach from others for his refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and for the historical ties he maintains with Moscow on defense matters.
The summit will also give Biden the opportunity to deal with Australia after his elections next Saturday. Some elections that may have an impact on the future of the Quad and Aukus, the tripartite military alliance between Washington, London and Canberra and that China detests.
At the stops on the trip, Biden will discuss with both Yoon and Kishida the threat posed by North Korea, which according to experts could be preparing a new launch of an intercontinental missile during the US president’s tour. After three years of halting talks with Washington on denuclearization, Pyongyang this year abandoned the moratorium on long-range missile tests that was imposed in 2018. According to some experts, it could also be preparing a nuclear test in the near future.
Taiwan, the island to which the United States must provide weapons by law for its defense against a hypothetical Chinese invasion, will be another of the dominant issues in the talks with the Japanese prime minister. Faced with increasing pressure from Beijing towards what it considers a rebellious province that does not give up unifying by force, Tokyo has raised its voice in favor of Taipei.
Precisely, and as happens in every conversation between the two governments, Taiwan was one of the axes of Wednesday’s dialogue between Sullivan and Yang. According to the Chinese statement, Yang stressed to his counterpart that “if the United States continues to play the Taiwan card and continues down the wrong path, dangerous situations will surely come.”
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