Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a continent away from South Korea and Japan. But when President Biden meets this week with leaders from Asia and Australia, he will face a slew of challenges tied to the war being waged by the Kremlin.
I’ll be covering Biden’s trip to Asia (follow me on Twitter for updates), and I wanted to leave you with a primer on the obstacles confronting Biden following his arrival Friday in Seoul.
Why is a European war an issue in U.S.-Asia relations?
The biggest factor is time and attention. American presidents have long promised that Asia would be their top foreign policy priority, with a focus on China. The strategy was dubbed the “pivot to Asia” under President Obama. It continued in a different form under President Trump, who cast China as a mortal enemy of his “America first” agenda and tried to broker peace in North Korea.
But urgent crises in Europe or the Middle East have almost always gotten in the way. Biden, nearly 16 months into his tenure, is just now making his first sojourn to the region. Trump made it to Asia — visiting five countries on a marathon trip — in November of his first year in office. It was easier without a pandemic, and Trump ruffled allies with his antagonistic rhetoric. Nonetheless, Trump’s trip sent a signal of engagement.
American allies, so far, seem to be impressed with Biden’s ability to rally international support for Ukraine.
But they are worried that Ukraine is “detracting from the U.S. commitments to Asia,” said Sheila A. Smith, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power.” “The president himself has said that he’s going there to reassure allies.”
But can’t the administration walk and chew gum at the same time? Why can’t the White House pay attention to Ukraine while still pivoting to Asia?
“They’ll no doubt say that,” said Susan Thornton, a retired diplomat who spent nearly three decades focusing on Asia. “It’s the biggest lie in government, but they’ll say that.”
Thornton and other experts said that handling multiple crises and strategic initiatives is actually very hard. Time is finite, as is the focus of senior advisors and Cabinet secretaries. The U.S. is also spending money and building weapons as part of the effort in Europe, thinning its resources.
Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, said it was clear the White House was focusing intense attention on Ukraine. At a forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington last week, Campbell said the war was “animating” for Biden and his senior team during “an incredibly intense period, a critical period.”
Even so, it would be bad for the U.S. to take its eye off the ball in Asia. “The larger strategic challenges are going to play out in the Indo-Pacific region,” Campbell said.
“There has been a sense that in previous administrations that we had set off with a determined pace to focus on East Asia or in the Indo-Pacific and then find ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps draw us away a little bit,” he continued. “I think there is a deep sense that that can’t happen again.”
National security advisor Jake Sullivan, briefing reporters Wednesday, argued that the two regions are not competing for attention, because Asian allies were cooperating with American-led sanctions against Russia while European allies were investing more in Asia in coordination with the U.S. economic strategy.
How do Asian allies view the invasion of Ukraine?
Warily. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack has sparked concerns among U.S. allies that it could embolden China to take more aggressive military action in the region. Those allies are particularly concerned that Beijing may take military action against Taiwan.
Japan, which has kept a minimal military since changing its constitution after World War II, has been boosting its defense spending, with a proposal to double its budget in the next five years to about $90 billion to counter China and Russia.
“There will be an effort by the Biden administration to reassure both Seoul and Tokyo … that the United States will come to their defense,” said Smith, who pointed out that the U.S. is bound by security agreements to defend those countries, unlike Ukraine, which has no such agreement.
Taiwan also has no such assurance.
So is everyone on board with U.S. sanctions against Russia?
No. Biden’s trip has two missions. He will visit newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in June, and meet with a group of allies known as the Quad.
The Quad — established chiefly to counter Chinese power — comprises the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.
India is the wild card. It has been fortifying its growing economy and military with Russian arms and cheap oil. Its government has resisted signing onto sanctions or strong statements condemning Russia, despite pressure from the U.S.
Michael Green, an Asia specialist in the George W. Bush administration, said creating a united front that includes India “will be the hardest diplomacy of the trip.”
He predicts behind-the-scenes pressure on India to take a stronger stand on Russia, but nothing public that would “shame” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It’s too important to keep the group together in the face of an increasingly strong China.
“They want to focus on the big prize here” of bringing India “inside the tent” of countries aligned against China, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
You haven’t mentioned North Korea. Are we done worrying about them?
If only. Pyongyang fired off three ballistic missiles last week in another test designed to remind the world that it remains committed to its nuclear program. Such missile launches frequently occur before high-profile American visits to the region.
The White House said more may be on the way.
“We’ve indicated in quite clear terms that our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either further missile tests — 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,” he added, telling reporters that the administration is in contact with officials in South Korea, Japan and China.
Still, Campbell said the U.S. government has “tried on numerous occasions to reach out to North Korean interlocutors to establish dialogue.”
But it has not happened. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, retreated further from the world stage during the COVID-19 pandemic and is largely in control of where and when he restarts nuclear negotiations.
The issue is likely to come up when Biden meets with South Korea’s Yoon. But don’t expect any progress. Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, pushed hard for a peace treaty and other forms of reconciliation with North Korea. Yoon is expected to take a harder line against the rogue state.