SEOUL – President Joe Biden hopes to use his visit to Asia to confirm his belief that long-standing friendships can afford to become even friendlier — and pay dividends. He opened the trip in South Korea on Friday and will end in Japan next week at a time when world events are resetting the foundations of the global order.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted supply chains and exposed the fragilities of a trade system focused primarily on low prices for consumers and high profits for corporations. Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ushered in a return to Cold War-era intrigues.
The U.S. and other wealthy democracies — including Japan and South Korea — banded together to help Ukraine and punish Russia, but not all countries were ready to side with the alliance. China, India and others have aimed to stay cordial with Russia without crossing the sanctions.
The uncertainty leaves Biden determined to show that America’s ultimate power rests with its ability to make friends and influence people rather than the raw capacity of its military and economy. A look at some of the key issues and themes on the table for Biden's visit:
EASING TENSIONS WITH NEW LEADERS
Relations between Japan and South Korea have been at their worst in decades because of disputes over wartime history and trade. These are rifts that the countries' two new leaders appear willing to heal, with Biden as a possible interlocutor who could help bring them closer together.
South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol assumed the presidency a week ago on the expectation of better ties with Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, told Yoon after his March election that “sound relations” are crucial for regional and international peace and stability.
As Kishida sees it, the rules-based order is threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japan fears the war could embolden China to seize territories in the Pacific, a big reason why better relations with South Korea are desired. Still, Kishida skipped Yoon’s May 10 inauguration, sending his foreign minister instead. Because the U.S. has relations with both countries, one likely bridge toward improving ties is focusing on their shared interests.
NORTH KOREAN PRESSURE COOKER
Biden’s visit comes as the allies face a growing threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. The country’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un is trying to force the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and he's out to negotiate security and economic concessions from a position of strength.
Kim has conducted 16 rounds of missile tests so far this year, including the country’s first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years in March. He's attempting to exploit a favorable environment to push forward his weapons program as the U.N. Security Council remains divided over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The challenges posed by a decaying economy and an escalating COVID-19 outbreak across an unvaccinated population of 26 million are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan says U.S. intelligence shows there’s a “genuine possibility” that North Korea will conduct another ballistic missile test or nuclear test around Biden’s visit.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements about relaxing crippling U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.
STORMS AT HOME
Even half a world away from home, Biden can’t escape the turbulence rippling through the U.S.
The stock market is tanking over fears about the economy. The baby formula shortage is frustrating families, even amid efforts to bring in imports and boost domestic supplies. The pain of the Buffalo, New York, mass shooting and the racist motives underlying the attack are still fresh. Add to that rising gasoline prices and the persistent challenge of inflation at a nearly 40-year high.
The president may want to train the public’s attention on his efforts abroad, but he’ll likely face tough questions about what’s happening at home.
A poll Friday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds approval of Biden at just 39%, the lowest point of his presidency, and deepening pessimism about the U.S. economy and direction of the United States — especially among Democrats.
About 2 in 10 U.S. adults say the United States is headed in the right direction or describe the economy good, down from about 3 in 10 in April. Among Democrats, just 33% say the country is on the right track, down from 49% last month.
The Quad partnership, meeting Tuesday in Tokyo, is composed of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan with the expressed goal of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. A joint statement after their 2021 meeting didn’t mention China, yet many of the stances adopted by the Quad are interpreted as a check on China’s ambitions to be the dominant power in Asia.
This time, the drama might be more internal and reflect the complex nature of democracy itself. That’s because Australia is holding elections Saturday. If the incumbent party wins, Prime Minister Scott Morrison would already be set to attend Tuesday’s meeting in Tokyo. If his party loses, Morrison would have to quickly resign so that opposition leader Anthony Albanese could be sworn in before the Tokyo meeting. Then there’s the possibility that neither party captures a majority or the results are uncertain. If that happens, Albanese might be able to attend as an observer.
THE CHINA CONUNDRUM
China is carefully watching Biden’s visit. The U.S. and its allies rely on China as a trade partner, yet rivalry persists as the shared economic interests have often revealed conflicting values systems. U.S. officials increasingly frame the relationship with China as one of competition.
Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the Beijing Winter Olympics and told the world that theirs is a friendship of “no limits.” Since the invasion, China has been critical of the sanctions imposed on Russia while appearing hesitant to cross the bans imposed by the U.S. and its allies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian alluded to China as “a third party” who should not be disadvantaged by agreements between the U.S. and Japan.
“The development of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Japan should not target a third party or harm the interests of third parties,” Zhao said at a Thursday briefing.
A NEW ACRONYM: IPEF
Former U.S. President Donald Trump torched years of trade negotiations by pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. While Biden has portrayed himself as the anti-Trump, he’s shown no enthusiasm for returning to the deal as written.
This leaves the U.S. coming to Asia to promote an alternative trade pact: the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Or, IPEF.
The framework is about regional cooperation on trade, technology, supply chains, clean energy, worker standards, taxes and anti-corruption programs. None of that is necessarily controversial. But a possible hurdle is the administration signaling that the framework won’t involve the usual financial sweeteners of lower tariffs and easier access to American customers, a possible nod to a U.S. voter backlash against past trade deals.
Quad members Australia, India and Japan are likely members of the framework. South Korea and some Southeast Asian countries are also seen candidates. But the framework is still in its early stages.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday that any regional cooperation framework should feature “peace and development, enhance mutual trust and cooperation between regional countries, should not target any third parties or undermine their interests, and should not be selective or exclusive.”
MORE CHIPS, PLEASE
It’s the engine of the digital age: Almost everything needs a computer chip. But the world simply lacks a reliable supply in the wake of the pandemic. U.S. government officials expect the shortages to ease toward the end of this year, but it might not be until 2023 that enough semiconductors are on the market to meet industry needs.
No one denies the need for more cooperation, but there’s an open debate about how to increase production to withstand disease, war, extreme weather and other calamities. Biden wants to see more chips made in the U.S. South Korea and Taiwan want to increase the resiliency of their own production as a fix to this crisis, according to a briefing by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Japan’s prime minister is making chips a cornerstone of his “new capitalism” policy, looking to make chips for robotic technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
Madhani reported from Washington. Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. AP writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report from Seoul.