Biden secures his anti-China coalition in Asia trip, fueling tensions in region

Posted on : 2022-05-26 17:12 KST Modified on : 2022-05-26 17:12 KST
A roundup of the US president’s trip to Korea and Japan
US President Joe Biden arrives at the White House after his trip to South Korea and Japan on May 24. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President Joe Biden arrives at the White House after his trip to South Korea and Japan on May 24. (AP/Yonhap News)

US President Joe Biden returned to the White House on Tuesday from a five-day tour of South Korea and Japan. On this trip, the US managed to achieve three things: strengthening its alliances with Korea and Japan, demonstrating the Quad’s unity and commitment to action, and launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. While the US reinforced its network for containing China, the drawback is that tensions are rising in East Asia.

Following his inauguration in January 2021, Biden underlined the importance of the Asia-Pacific region by inviting the leaders of Japan and Korea to the White House before any other world leaders in April and May of that year. But since the end of last year, Biden has been forced to focus on the situation in Ukraine. Now that the conflict there is starting to cool, Biden is taking steps to contain China and bolster American alliances with his visits to Korea and Japan.

Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol specified in their summit statement that Korea would play a bigger role in the US’ global strategy, using the phrase “global comprehensive strategic alliance.” When the two countries said that they would “expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula,” the ostensible reason was threats from North Korea. But that can be seen as a strategic move aimed at strengthening military cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan in the long term. The US government’s push to repair Korea-Japan relations has less to do with North Korea than with China.

The US’ determination to counter China through its alliances was even more evident at the US-Japan summit. Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida explicitly mentioned China in their joint statement, which said they had “discussed continuing actions by China that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order.” The two leaders also “concurred to work together to strengthen deterrence to maintain peace and stability in the region,” making clear their determination to curtail China’s influence.

Since Biden’s tour of Korea and Japan was occasioned by the second summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — Quad for short, involving the US, Japan, India and Australia — the discussion in that summit and the resulting joint statement carry great weight.

The Quad leaders said in their summit statement, “We will champion adherence to international law [. . .] to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order,” while mentioning “the East and South China Seas.” The four leaders also said they would “act decisively together” in support of the principle of the “peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force [or] any unilateral attempt to change the status quo.”

When the Quad held its first summit virtually after being upgraded to the leader level in March 2021, the discussion emphasized matters such as combating COVID-19 and responding to climate change. But in this summit, the forum’s nature as an anti-China coalition became more conspicuous.

This year’s agreement contains a provision to set up a joint system of monitoring for illegal fishing activities in the South China Sea, where China’s substantial territorial claims have prompted friction with its neighbors. Such a system could also be used for monitoring China’s naval activities.

Earlier, the US promised to dispatch Coast Guard vessels to help prosecute illegal fishing activities during a special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington on May 12-13.

The US was already carrying out “freedom of navigation” operations in support of the Asia-Pacific strategy’s catchphrase of “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” but it’s now gearing up for the more aggressive action of policing Chinese ships.

The US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which was launched in Tokyo with 13 countries participating (including Korea and Japan), is expected to function as a tool for the economic containment of China, though no specific action plans have been announced so far. The US even managed to sign on several members of ASEAN and India, which had been reluctant to join.

In the end, Biden’s tour of Korea and Japan was consistent with the US’ strategy of tightening its net of containment around China. The Indo-Pacific Strategy, which the White House released in February, described strengthening and modernizing alliances as a strategic way to counter China.

Mireya Solís, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, described Biden’s tour as representing “an important milestone.” But she also noted “headwinds” such as doubts about the IPEF participants’ actual level of cooperation.

Considering that China and Russia held a joint exercise on the final day of Biden’s trip in which their warplanes entered Korea’s air defense identification zone without permission, rising tensions are unavoidable.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

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