Biden needs to do better in Asia
When Joe Biden arrived in Asia last week for the first visit to the region of his presidency, he aimed to pick up where his predecessor left off. Landing in South Korea on May 20 as events in North Korea and the Ukraine crisis loomed large, Mr Biden then travelled to Tokyo for a meeting of an alliance of the US, Australia, Japan and India that aims to counter China’s growing influence.
Since taking office in January last year, Mr Biden has given the Quad new momentum; the Tokyo meeting was the fourth such leaders’ summit in just 14 months and the second in-person meeting following one at the White House last September.
The Quad leaders last Tuesday announced new initiatives on cybersecurity, space, vaccine distribution and a data-sharing partnership to monitor shipping routes in the South China Sea, an effort to combat China’s aggressive maritime behaviour.
Before Tuesday’s summit, Mr Biden also introduced his administration’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which seeks to promote cooperation between Washington and 12 initial partners including the three other Quad members and seven Asean countries — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus South Korea and New Zealand.
The goal is to solidify relationships on global issues such as supply chains battered by the Covid pandemic, clean energy and digital rules, but without reducing trade barriers or tariffs. The IPEF is not considered a free-trade agreement and some experts say it shouldn’t be the beginning of one.
The US has kept Asean on the back burner for a few years, with the last special summit held in 2016 under Barack Obama. Another one was mooted when Donald Trump was in office but was deferred because of the pandemic.
The Biden administration is increasing engagement with Asean, including holding a summit in Washington earlier this month. The US is still the largest source of foreign direct investment in Asean, and two-way trade amounted to almost US$260 billion in 2021.
Nevertheless, Asean views China as the most influential economic power in the region, reflecting Beijing’s significant role in the regional supply chain.
And while Mr Biden’s ultimate goal is to strengthen ties with Asian countries amid a geopolitical shift, a statement he made prior to the Quad meeting may raise tensions unnecessarily. In answer to a reporter’s question, he said the US would “get involved militarily” to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China.
The answer was interpreted by some as an indication of a major policy shift. However, within minutes the State Department began walking back the comments, and Mr Biden himself clarified that there was no change in US policy on China and Taiwan.
The US formally recognises Beijing, but has strong informal relations with Taiwan and legislated obligations to provide it with the means to defend itself. For decades, Washington has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity”, meaning it would come to Taiwan’s aid to deter both sides from provocative action.
It’s also worth noting that Taiwan is not included in the IPEF, despite the island’s global status as the hub of the strategically vital semiconductor industry.
Japan, meanwhile, was put in an uncomfortable position. With its westernmost inhabited island just 110km from Taiwan, a war with China could pull a nation that has disavowed armed conflict into dangerous territory.
The Japanese government is moving toward a large increase in military spending to counter China’s ambitions, and it has even discussed plans to acquire weapons capable of striking missile launch sites in enemy territory.
In the past, Japan’s concerns often fell on deaf ears. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made its case much clearer. Tokyo fears the Senkaku islands could be “the Crimea to Japan’s Ukraine”, and will seek assurance of US plans to defend the islands that are also disputed by Beijing.
Mr Biden’s comments, of course, angered China. Foreign Minister Wang Yi also said the IPEF should not become a tool for the US to “coerce regional countries to choose sides”, and that attempts to box China in were bound to fail.
The Biden administration has taken several steps including revitalising the Quad to contain China’s ambition. But instead of a very broad and vague economic agenda and provocations that strike fear among Asian allies, he should come back with a more tangible agenda to engage more productively with region in the very near future.