Biden setting his foreign policy sights far beyond Ukraine
When Joe Biden began his presidency about 15 months ago, Asia-Pacific was the North Star of his foreign policy. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has recast his international priorities.
The US president is now making the final preparations for an important trip to Japan and South Korea, which will take place from May 20-24. It is his first to the region since he entered the Oval Office last year.
The trip will see a determined effort to refocus US attention, including the expected launch of a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework strategy. While Russia remains the major immediate threat to Washington’s security interests, recent developments have done little to alter the administration’s view that China remains the paramount, longer-term challenge.
While Biden will promote important bilateral agendas in Japan and South Korea, the main focus of attention will be the leadership meeting of the Quad powers of India, the US, Japan and Australia, which will be hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Although the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, was initiated in 2007, it has come into much greater focus in the past few years.
The importance that the Biden team places on this loose alliance was illustrated last year when the White House organized and hosted the first-ever in-person leadership meeting of the four powers, which was attended by Scott Morrison, Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga, the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan respectively.
While some have played down the importance of the group, its relevance as an emerging anti-China alliance was buttressed by the announcement last year by London, Washington and Canberra of a trilateral security partnership to defend “shared interests in the Indo-Pacific,” with Beijing again the unstated key focal point.
The main goal of the upcoming Quad meeting is to advance a shared vision for a free and open Asia-Pacific, with all the leaders in agreement about the threat from China. This is despite the lack of unanimity within the group on Russia, with India an outlier given its refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
While his immediate foreign focus is Ukraine, Biden knows that relations with Japan, India and Australia are among the most pivotal in current international relations.
So, top of the agenda will be Beijing and its growing assertiveness, which all four leaders perceive is undermining their vision of a free and open regional landscape. Take, for example, the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, where not only Japan and the US but also other countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei are in dispute with China about waters through which about $5 trillion of shipping trade passes each year.
There will be several aspects of the Quad discussions that will be particularly sensitive from China’s perspective, including the security of Taiwan and its future as a democracy. The group’s leaders will reportedly discuss the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, a move that China claims will impair its national interests.
Beijing claims sovereignty over Taipei, which now counts Tokyo among its closest allies. Any future cross-Straits conflict would affect Japan, whose westernmost inhabited island, Yonaguni, lies less than 70 miles off Taiwan’s east coast. The island is home to about 1,700 citizens and 200 soldiers, and Tokyo is planning to increase its troop presence there.
These developments will only heighten the tensions in China’s relations with the Quad nations, especially the US, which could yet flare up very badly. Ever since a meeting in Alaska last year between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, the mood music has been muted at best, with the Biden administration retaining the tougher foreign and economic policies on Beijing that were introduced by President Donald Trump.
China will not be the only focus of the Quad meeting, however. North Korea is also causing fresh concerns following the missile tests it has carried out this year, the most recent of which was on Thursday. The Quad will not only condemn those tests, which violated UN Security Council resolutions, but also reiterate calls for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
On the economic front, Kishida will discuss with Biden whether he might reverse Trump’s decision to withhold US participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a trade and investment deal originally intended to lock Washington into a deeper partnership with its allies in the region.
There are significant concerns in Tokyo that the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework strategy could undermine the CPTPP. Japan made some deep concessions — in part instigated by the Barack Obama administration, of which Biden was a key part — to ensure the CPTPP could be signed in February 2016, only for Trump to walk away from the deal a year later.
All of this, taken together, is why Biden’s trip is so important. While his immediate foreign focus is Ukraine, he knows that relations with Japan, India and Australia are among the most pivotal in current international relations, and that what is agreed, regarding China and North Korea in particular, will affect not only the region but the whole world.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.