Biden kicks off Asia tour aimed at bolstering Indo-Pacific ties | Political news

Seoul, South Korea – US President Joe Biden has arrived in South Korea for the first leg of an Asia tour aimed at bolstering Washington’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and countering China’s rise despite global attention brought to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He landed at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, on Friday evening.

After a three-day visit that includes a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, Biden will depart for Japan on Sunday for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The US leader’s first trip to Asia as president, however, is overshadowed by what officials said was a ‘real risk of some sort of provocation’ from North Korea, including a nuclear or missile test. .

Pyongyang’s nuclear program will top the agenda for Biden’s talks in Seoul and Tokyo, as will enhanced cooperation on technology, trade and security issues. Biden is also likely to push for improved relations between the two Washington treaty allies in Asia after ties soured over historical disputes and territorial issues during Moon Jae-in’s presidency of South Korea. .

Biden will also convene a summit of leaders from the Quad grouping – which includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia – in Tokyo and launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an agreement that aims to establish supply chain standards, worker protection, decarbonization and anti-corruption.

“The main purpose of Biden’s trip to Asia is to build support among key Asian allies for the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University. . “There are concerns that the Biden administration has its hands tied in the war in Ukraine when the real threat is China and the key region of US interests is the Indo-Pacific, not Europe.”

Experts say Biden’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo is to show support for democratic allies in Asia-Pacific and rules-based international order [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

Biden’s visit therefore aims to show that the United States can respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine and at the same time support its Asian allies against China’s growing economic and military influence in the region.

“Biden believes that the war in Ukraine is closely linked to the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy,” Kim said.

“The war in Ukraine is about upholding the rules-based international order (RBIO), in which sovereignty is the cardinal norm of international relations. Russia violated this norm and invaded Ukraine. He must be stopped at all costs unless he commits boots to the ground. The US Indo-Pacific also aims to protect the RBIO in the region.

Democratic Alliance

The White House said Biden’s visit was not so much about confronting China, but about Sending in progress a “powerful message” to Beijing and others about what the world could look like if democracies “come together to shape the rules of the road”.

To that end, Biden’s trip to Asia is also “fundamentally” about building personal ties with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters en route. South Korea.

“In either case, he’s looking for the opportunity to just spend time getting to know these leaders…so that when they have to pick up the phone in a crisis or to respond to a major world event, there’s a base of trust and understanding and almost like a common language of operation,” he said.

For its part, China has said it will follow Biden’s visit closely, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashing out at ‘anti-China’ rhetoric and warning of ‘negative moves’ in Taiwan, the self-governing island she claims as her own. .

Both Yoon’s and Kishida’s predecessors backed US calls for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” last year amid increased Chinese military pressure on Taipei.

These statements angered Beijing and South Korea, of which China is the largest trading partner, immediately minimized the significance of this statement. Japan, however, has intensified the rhetoric in favor of Taiwan, with Kishida saying earlier this month that any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo through the use of force in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Asia of the East” must never be tolerated. .

Otherwise, he warned, “Ukraine could be East Asia tomorrow.”

Given the sensitivity of the issue, observers will be watching closely for statements on Taiwan at Biden’s summits with South Korean and Japanese leaders.

For Biden, the meeting with Yoon is his first because the South Korean leader, who was elected in closely contested elections in March, did not take office until May 10. The US president has met Kishida in person once before, on the sidelines of the US United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow in November last year, a month after the Japanese leader was elected prime minister.

On Friday, Yoon sent his “heartfelt welcome” to the US president in the very first tweet from his official account.

“A mountain shows its way to the top to those who seek it,” he wrote ahead of Biden’s arrival. “I am confident that the ROK-US alliance which seeks to uphold the values ​​of democracy and human rights will only rise in the future,” he added, referring to the South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.

Yoon’s priority for Biden’s visit will be ‘to establish the ROK-US alliance as a central axis for building and strengthening East Asia and global peace and prosperity,’ an aide to the president said. South Korean, especially in the face of increased provocations from the North. Korea.

Pyongyang has carried out a record 16 weapons launches this year and US and South Korean officials say it is preparing to test a nuclear weapon, possibly during Biden’s Asian tour. This is despite the North grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has now infected around two million people.

“There is a real possibility, a real risk of some kind of provocation while we are in the region, whether in South Korea or Japan, which could take the form of a nuclear test, the seventh nuclear test that North Korea has done. It could take the form of a missile test,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One, the president’s plane.

He added that Washington is ready to respond to such an event.

“We have communicated not only to our allies, but also to China, that this will only increase our courage in the United States in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments in the way our military is positioned in the region.”

Seoul and Tokyo line up

Yoon has pledged to take a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor, including seeking strengthened military exercises with the United States and the redeployment of US nuclear bombers and submarines to South Korean territory. . But during his inauguration, he also promised a “bold” economic plan if the North gave up its nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un shown on North Korean state TV removing his face mask
North Korea is battling a severe COVID-19 outbreak, but there are fears it could attempt a nuclear test while Biden is in the region [File: Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Analysts say they expect the United States and South Korea to pursue a North Korean policy of deterrence rather than diplomacy, unlike Yoon’s predecessor Moon.

“The important conversation behind the scenes will be more about how the United States effectively provides credible expanded deterrence to South Korea and what specific mechanisms does that look like,” said Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea program. Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank.

And that includes talks about “the positioning of nuclear-capable assets,” he said.

Another point of discussion will be the improvement of South Korea-Japan relations. This is essential, analysts say, not only to address North Korea’s nuclear program, but also to realize the US vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Yoon had campaigned on a platform of seeking better relations with Japan, and as president-elect he sent a delegation in April to deliver a letter to Kishida expressing his desire to pursue a “forward-looking partnership”. future” with Tokyo, while facing up to shared history, according to the Yonhap news agency. This includes addressing the issue of forced labor and wartime sexual slavery in Japan.

Yoon and Kishida’s desire to improve their relationship is a “very rare condition of security,” said Youngshik Bong, a research fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute of North Korean Studies.

This is “very advantageous” for the United States, which has long sought to bring the two nations closer together.

“For the first time in a long time, the leaders of the three countries – South Korea, Japan, the United States – are on the same page to strengthen and improve trilateral security cooperation,” Bong said. “If you look at past history, at least one leader in a country has been quite cautious or passive in giving full support to trilateral security cooperation.

“But this time, the three leaders are on the same wavelength.

“This will allow the three to work together to strengthen security cooperation,” he said.

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