President Biden will embark on his first trip as chief executive to Asia this week, an opportunity to focus more on the challenge posed by China since his administration has been consumed for months by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Biden entered office expecting to focus on China as his foremost foreign policy challenge. In speech after speech, Biden has identified China as the chief economic competitor of the US and built policy and partnerships around countering Beijing’s influence in the Asia-Pacific.
But that focus has been challenged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which experts say virtually guarantees the US will need to devote more resources in the short and medium term to bolster European security in addition to strengthening its Asian allies while confronting China.
“I don’t see that shift as temporary, and that’s because Russia has demonstrated aggressive intent that will require vigilance in Eastern Europe and will require more American troops on NATO’s eastern flank, more ships, more aircraft, more capability,” said Charles Kupchan , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served at the National Security Council under former President Obama.
But the White House has made clear that it has the capacity to devote resources and attention to both the Indo-Pacific and Europe, and officials see Biden entering the next several days of meetings on strong footing, having united allies behind a common approach to addressing Russian aggression.
“For us, there is a certain level of integration and symbiosis in the strategy we’re pursuing in Europe and the strategy we’re pursuing in the Indo-Pacific,” White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at a Wednesday briefing. “President Biden’s unique capacity to actually stitch those together is, I think, going to be a hallmark of his foreign policy presidency.”
Biden’s first trip to Asia starts on Friday in South Korea, where he will meet the country’s newly elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol. Then he is on to Japan, where he will meet face-to-face with leaders of the other Quad countries, Japan, India, and Australia.
The meeting marks a major summit for the security group that was revived in 2017 to better coordinate against China’s ambitions in the region but may face tension over New Delhi’s resistance to join the US-led campaign to isolate Moscow.
It is the second in-person leader meeting for the Quad, following a gathering in Washington in September. A virtual summit was held in March.
Russia is likely on the agenda. Intelligence officials have said China is watching closely and calculating how the global response factors into its goal of conquering Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing claims as its own.
Yuko Nakano, fellow of the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being viewed in Asia as a “mirror image” for how China could look to invade Taiwan.
“I think [Japanese Prime Minister Fumio] Kishida will take this opportunity to reiterate the message of stressing that unilateral change to the status quo by force is unacceptable not only in Europe but also in Asia,” Nakano said during a panel discussion on Wednesday.
Asked if Biden would use the trip to send a cautionary message to China, Sullivan said the goal of the White House is to put forth an “affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road, to define the security arch of the region, to reinforce strong, powerful, historic alliances.”
“We think that message will be heard everywhere, we think it will be heard in Beijing,” said Sullivan, who spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Wednesday ahead of the trip about a range of issues.
North Korea is also sure to be a topic of discussion amid heightened tensions in the region. The White House said Wednesday it is preparing for the possibility that Pyongyang conducts a ballistic missile or nuclear test during Biden’s trip.
While the Quad alliance is widely viewed as having the goal of countering China’s military and economic influence, the group is careful about the way it talks about China. Sullivan said that the Quad summit would deal with issues including climate, cybersecurity, and emerging technology.
“I think, generally speaking, the Quad puts forward a positive agenda that tries to avoid mentioning China,” said Joshua Fitt, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “China is always lurking in the background of the corners of large parts of the Quad’s agenda, but not all of them.”
The trip will also give Biden an opportunity to more fully articulate his administration’s strategy on China, which has struggled to take off.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a speech prepared focused on just that, which he was set to give on May 5, but had to cancel after testing positive for COVID-19. The State Department has not provided an alternate date.
“The US has struggled to develop a China policy. We’ve developed parts of it in fits and starts,” Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at CSIS, said in a briefing.
Kennedy, who has traveled in Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo over the past month, said that despite the administration’s concentrated focus on Russia, the US is in a strong position to counter China, which has instituted intense lockdowns to try to stem the transmission of COVID -19 but has wreaked havoc on their economy.
Pro-US governments in South Korea and Japan, and a historic US-ASEAN summit in Washington last week further strengthened Biden’s hand in the Indo-Pacific, he argued.
“China’s reputation in the region has suffered dramatically while the US’s has improved significantly,” Kennedy said.
In addition to meeting other leaders, Biden is expected to announce a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) while in Japan. It is expected to serve as a venue for closer cooperation on trade, standards for the digital economy and technology, ensuring supply chains and combating climate change.
At least 50 Democratic and Republican senators are urging the president to commit to including Taiwan as a partner in the IPEF.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows the value of tangible economic support by the United States and like-minded allies and partners, and the same is true for Taiwan. Including Taiwan in the IPEF would be an invaluable signal of our rock-solid commitment to Taiwan and its prosperity and freedom,” the senators said in a letter to the president.
It was led by Sens. Bob Menendez (DN.J.) and James Risch (R-Idaho), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While it will be Biden’s first trip to the region as president, the administration has dispatched other prominent officials — including Vice President Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and, more recently, Blinken — to Asia.
“While President Biden himself hasn’t been out to the region yet, it has certainly been a major priority of his administration,” Fitt said.