Five Things To Watch on Joe Biden's Asia Tour

As the war in Europe rages on and the United States commits more aid to Ukraine, Joe Biden is making the first Asia visit of his presidency to convince long-time allies that the world's resident power can be in two places at once.

Biden's six-day visit to Northeast Asia will begin in Seoul and end in Tokyo, and he is due to meet with leaders and officials from several nations in the Indo-Pacific region during his trip. China is expected the top the agenda of every session, followed by North Korea.

Part of renewed efforts by the U.S. to tout its leadership and staying power in Asia will be a promise of more multilateral engagement—a strength the Democrat emphasized when he ran against Donald Trump in 2020. This will include reaffirming defense commitments and a pledge to expand America's trade agenda in the region.

Before Biden boards Air Force One on Thursday, he will first welcome the leaders of Finland and Sweden to discuss their NATO applications at the White House, a venue where the president hosted leaders from Southeast Asia's ASEAN union just last week.

Joe Biden Prepares First Asia Trip
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol proposes a toast to foreign guests at a dinner in Seoul on May 10, 2022. Moon will host Joe Biden when he makes the first trip to Asia of his presidency, which begins on Friday. JEON HEON-KYUN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea

Biden is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Friday to begin a trip that will include a first face-to-face dialogue with South Korea's newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol.

Yoon's predecessor, Moon Jae-in, ensured Seoul was aligned with Western democracies against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. When it came to China, however, Moon hedged South Korea's security posture in a tactful manner that sought as little disruption to its trade relationship with Beijing as possible.

Yoon is not troubled by the same reservations. He was elected on a mandate to strengthen the country's military alliance with the U.S. and seek better relations with Japan, although the latter may prove to be a more challenging objective.

Biden and Moon will hold a bilateral summit followed by a joint-statement, in which both leaders are expected to commit to closely cooperating on challenges associated with North Korea.

Japan

In the last decade, Tokyo has aligned ever closer with Washington, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, and evolved its own defense posture to meet perceived national security threats out of Beijing and Pyongyang.

Japan hosts the most forward-deployed American troops outside of U.S. territory, a fact to which Biden will surely pay tribute when he meets Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Sunday, at the tail end of Tokyo's cherry blossom season.

This week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan called the U.S.-Japan alliance "the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific." The bilateral relationship was now "at an all-time high," Sullivan said. "This visit can take us ever higher."

A Biden-Kishida joint-statement will likely include opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo in the East and South China seas, as well as an emphasis on peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait—which points to concerns about China's expansionist tendencies in the region.

Joe Biden Prepares First Asia Trip
President Joe Biden arrives at the White House on May 18, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Biden will depart the U.S. on May 19 for a six-day visit to Asia that will include important summits in South Korea and Japan. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Among the more notable items on Biden's itinerary is an in-person summit in Tokyo on Tuesday of the leaders of the nations comprising the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The event, a follow-up to talks at the White House in September 2021, will bring together the leaders of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which is holding national elections this Saturday.

Beijing has not taken kindly to the reinvigoration of the Quad, a process that began under the Trump administration. The four nations, however, are keen to stress that the group does not target any country, and instead seeks to address common global issues and tackle problems including climate change and global health. However, this has not precluded discussions about including more partners, such as South Korea.

A joint-statement will also follow the Quad summit.

China

China is a common challenge for the U.S. and its allies in Asia, while at the same time also being their most important trading partner. Relations between Washington and Beijing are fraught, and each believes the other is to blame.

Biden's administration has identified China as the so-called "pacing challenge." To meet that challenge, the president has taken a multilateral and multidimensional approach, roping in allies and partners from Asia to Europe in the hope of sending a unified message to the Chinese leadership.

Part of the signal is to ensure Beijing understands that the West and its allies in the Indo-Pacific will not tolerate actions akin to those taken by Russia President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. This is expected to be emphasised during Biden's visit to Northeast Asia.

"President Biden has rallied the free world in defense of Ukraine and in opposition to Russian aggression. He remains focused on ensuring that our efforts in those missions are successful," Sullivan told reporters in the White House on Wednesday.

"But he also intends to seize this moment—this pivotal moment—to assert bold and confident American leadership in another vital region of the world: the Indo-Pacific."

"The message we're trying to send on this trip is a message of 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 architecture of the region, to reinforce strong, powerful, historic alliances," he said.

"It will send a powerful message. We think that message will be heard everywhere. We think it will be heard in Beijing. But it is not a negative message, and it's not targeted at any one country."

Zhao Lijian, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Beijing was "closely following news of U.S. President Biden's visit to Asia." Washington can expect a sharp response to any perceived taunts or threats.

North Korea

North Korea is another common concern for leaders in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. The country's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, has conducted frequent ballistic missile tests in recent months and there are signs pointing to more in the coming days.

This is despite Pyongyang's facing what North Korean state media has called a national crisis caused by an explosive COVID outbreak among a vulnerable and unvaccinated population of 25 million people. The public health hardships have not deterred Kim from his missile tests, and U.S. intelligence believes he may restart nuclear tests, too.

"Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including a long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on or after the president's trip to the region," Sullivan said.

"We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan."

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed that Biden would not be visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Joe Biden Prepares First Asia Trip
National security advisor Jake Sullivan answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House on May 18, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Sullivan laid out President Joe Biden’s broad agenda ahead of the first trip to Asia of his presidency. Win McName/Getty Images

Trade

Observers will see a realigned South Korea as a win for U.S. treaty alliances in Asia, particularly as Washington believes the challenge from China is growing more acute. But other capitals in the region will be watching closely as Biden reveals how America plans to respond to Beijing's economic dominance throughout the Indo-Pacific.

For years, smaller countries in Southeast Asia have called on the U.S. to establish a credible trade agenda in the region to broaden its engagement in meaningful ways, while balancing American security commitments with Chinese economic dependence.

According to the White House, Biden will unveil the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), his answer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership former President Trump left in 2017 that the current administration has chosen not to rejoin.

With Washington vowing to diversify supply chains away from China and secure safe access to semiconductors, Biden will be counting on the IPEF to draw in regional partners interested in high standards in the digital economy, labor and the environment.

IPEF "is a 21st century economic arrangement, a new model designed to tackle new economic challenges—from setting the rules of the digital economy, to ensuring secure and resilient supply chains, to managing the energy transition, to investing in clean, modern, high-standards infrastructure," Sullivan said.

"On security and economics, on technology and energy, on investment in infrastructure, we think this trip is going to put on full display President Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy, and that it will show, in living color, that the United States can at once lead the free world in responding to Russia's war in Ukraine and at the same time chart a course for effective, principled American leadership and engagement in a region that will define much of the future of the 21st century."

It remains unclear whether Beijing will have a part to play in IPEF—likely not—but Zhao, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warned: "China always believes that any regional cooperation framework should avoid targeting third parties and undermining their interests."