Joe Biden blundered this week by calling South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol by his predecessor’s name (Moon Jae-in).
Yet by breaking with diplomatic tradition in visiting Seoul before Tokyo during his first trip to Asia as US president, Biden was sending an important message.
Before arriving in office earlier this month, Yoon had struck all the right chords with China hawks in Washington during his election campaign. The 61 year-old said his government might join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or QUAD, an informal group comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia) as well as the Five Eyes (an intelligence- sharing alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
Yoon even said that South Korea might partner with the US and Japan (a neighbour it has historically disliked) in forming a trilateral military alliance.
The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan was signed in 1951 – so a newer trilateral pact would be a bold escalation.
Yoon’s overtures on the QUAD and the Five Eyes were picked up immediately in the Chinese media, which has been discussing how a ‘3-4-5’ foreign policy could push East Asian rivalries into a dangerous new era.
That’s because Beijing and North Korea will see any new alliance as a threat to their own security – in a similar way to the Russian claim that NATO’s expansion forced their hand in Ukraine.
Against such a high-octane backdrop, intelligence officials in Washington have warned that North Korea could test ballistic missiles or even a nuclear device soon after Biden’s Asian trip.
On Tuesday, Japanese fighter jets were scrambled in response to a joint patrol by Chinese and Russian bombers, which flew close to Japanese islands in the East China Sea.
“We cannot overlook any provocations to raise tensions in the East Asian region,” Japan’s Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo protested.
The proposed trilateral military alliance between the US and two of its closest Asian allies was not mentioned during Biden’s four-day visit to Asia. There was little discussion of the QUAD welcoming new members when leaders of the four Indo-Pacific countries met in Tokyo on Monday either. Instead the White House has been keener to talk about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which is being launched with a dozen initial partners including South Korea, Japan, Australia and fast-growing ASEAN economies like Vietnam.
Together with the US, the 13-member IPEF represents 40% of the global economy. “It is, by any account, the most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region,” Gina Raimondo, Biden’s secretary of commerce, told a news briefing this week. “[It] marks an important turning point in restoring economic leadership in the region and presenting Indo-Pacific countries an alternative to China’s approach to these critical issues.”
For many ASEAN countries the IPEF is a dramatic turnaround in Washington’s approach to economic engagement with the region. Almost as soon as Donald Trump took office as US president in 2017 he tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of his predecessor Barack Obama. Beijing was quick to react. The China-endorsed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – signed by 15 countries including South Korea and Japan and most of the new IPEF members – took effect in 2020, becoming the world’s largest trade deal.
The IPEF is trying to offer something other than lower tariffs. It wants to create a group of countries that are willing to sign up to key policy themes ranging from supply chain resilience to decarbonisation; and from setting standards for the digital economy to fighting corruption.
Countries such as Japan and Singapore would like Biden to reverse back into the TPP. But wary of political opposition at home, Biden has picked a partnership that avoids some of the thornier questions around traditional trade deals. That brings questions about how much impact the IPEF will have, the Wall Street Journal suggests.
The Bangkok Post this week reported that Thailand only decided to be “named as a signatory” to the new group after a cabinet meeting last week, while leading foreign investors in the US, such as Samsung, weren’t too sure what the IPEF was about. According to the Korean Times, Biden was scheduled to meet representatives from Korea’s leading conglomerates to talk about the new framework, as the chaebol tycoons sought clarity on “what the IPEF primarily seeks to do and even how it would be negotiated”.
The Jakarta Post also warned that ASEAN governments have different views and approaches to the US on how to manage their economic and political ties with China (ASEAN nations have included the Chinese – their biggest trading partner – in regional trade architecture such as the RCEP, which came into force at the start of this year).
Of course there are still tensions between China and a number of southeast Asian countries, not least over Beijing’s territorial claims within its ‘nine-dotted line’ in the South China Sea. That said, the Jakarta Post cautions that ASEAN nations and the US might be on the “same page, but not in the same boat” on some of the key issues, noting too that the Americans can’t claim to be an Indo-Pacific power because they don’t have direct access to the Indian Ocean.
Beijing has been quick to criticise the IPEF. Following talks with his counterpart in Pakistan on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wondered aloud whether the new framework is another attempt at forcing countries to “take sides” between Washington and Beijing. “Is the US trying to accelerate the recovery of the world economy or is it creating economic decoupling, technological blockade, industrial chain disruption and aggravating the supply chain crisis?” he asked.
Recent elections in Asia have seen political leaders trying to tread a difficult path through fraying China-US relations. Former South Korean president Moon, for instance, was accused by Yoon of getting too close to Beijing and being too soft with North Korea. Scott Morrison, Australia’s outgoing prime minister’, suffered defeat in the Australian general election this week after his more confrontational stance on China seemed to have backfired.
Last but not least, voters in Taiwan have punished politicians who support the policy of unification with mainland China over the course of the last two presidential election cycles. That means the self-ruling island has been aligning itself more firmly with the US and Biden seemed to return the favour last week when he made an uncategorical pledge that the US military would defend Taiwan if China were to invade.
Speaking alongside Japanese leader Kishida Fumio, Biden insisted any military strike by the Chinese would “dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine”.
The remarks were another break with the longstanding approach of “strategic ambiguity” in Washington’s policy on Taiwan in which it chooses not to make clear whether it would defend the island by force in the face of Chinese hostilities.
Sure enough, they triggered an immediate reaction from the Chinese as well, with the front page of the China Daily warning that “no one should underestimate the nation’s firm resolve, staunch will and strong ability to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
A foreign ministry spokesperson was similarly appalled, expressing “firm opposition to Biden’s remarks, stressing that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory”.
But did Biden mean to say what he did? It’s hard to know. Just like previous situations in which comments from Biden have seemed to break with long-established policy, the White House soon clarified that the ‘One-China policy’ had not changed and that the US would continue to “provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself”.
The American media characterised that reaction as another case of ‘walking back’ on a statement from Biden. But the confusion left seasoned analysts nonplussed. Typical was Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She told the South China Morning Post: “I’m not sure China has much confidence that the US has a One-China policy. What they’re seeing is increasingly unclear US statements on Taiwan. I think it’s important for our allies, friends and our adversaries to understand what our policy is. Failure to do so could prompt the very attack by China we seek to avoid. I don’t see that [Biden’s] constant misstatements are helping.”
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