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Foreign Policy

Decoding Biden’s Asia Trip

May 31, 2022
  • Shen Dingli

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

Joe Biden has finished his first trip to Asia as U.S. president, which could be summed up in three points: roping in South Korea and Japan, warming up the Indo-Pacific Strategy and reiterating that the United States military will “intervene” for Taiwan’s defense. There basically was nothing new in Biden’s trip, other than launching Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

It seems inappropriate to over-interpret the just-unveiled IPEF. So, first, let’s look at South Korea and Japan. That Biden first visited South Korea on his first Asian trip as U.S. leader showed the weight he places on the Yun Seok-yeol government and reflected discontent with the last South Korean administration’s keeping a distance from U.S. East Asia policy.

However, South Korea’s biggest problem is not that its external security environment has seriously worsened because of China’s rise. It’s the constant military pressure brought by the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and their effect on the southern peninsula. In this regard, none of the previous South Korean governments has achieved anything substantial. The U.S. is also at its wits’ end. Neither the Yun government in Cheongwadae, nor the Biden administration in the White House has come up with an effective solution.

The symbolic show of goodwill in Biden’s visit far outweighed the substance of strategic cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea. Even if South Korea joins the currently U.S.-dominated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, it is an outcome of bilateral negotiations under Moon Jae-in. And the future of the framework remains uncertain, not to mention it may become a new driver for China’s development in the next stage.

Even though the U.S. wants to build an Asia-Pacific edition of NATO, Biden was unable to dissolve the historical feud between South Korea and Japan in two days’ time, and the so-called U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral military alliance lacks political and security consensus.

The newly inaugurated Yun government’s tough rhetoric on North Korea an its show of greater intimacy with the U.S. are basically meant to serve its campaign purposes — to distinguish its political program from the last administration’s. Yet, since North Korea is politically independent, prides itself on its nuclear weapons and has in fact given up on unifying the peninsula by force, there is no possibility for South Korea and the U.S. to change it. Five years later when the Yun government leaves office, the situation on the peninsula won’t see any abrupt change as the ROK wishes. Whether Biden visits or not makes no difference.

Second, look at the Indo-Pacific. To date, the U.S. only has the Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework proposed by the Trump administration. The Biden government has yet to come up with its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The Trump administration activated the Indo-Pacific Security Mechanism dialogue; the Biden administration has upgraded it to summit level. Since the geographical coverage has expanded from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, an important goal is to take in India. However, the ultimate failure of the Indo-Pacific mechanism will inevitably be that it has included India.

Connotations of the Indo-Pacific Security Mechanism are freedom and democracy in the region, cooperation in industry and public heath chains and freedom of navigation, which are completely different from alliance mechanisms, which are detached from military joint defense — an important reason the mechanism has incorporated India. The U.S. wasn’t willing to send troops to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, so in the future when it comes to a regional conflict (such as one in the Taiwan Strait) that doesn’t directly involve India, India will find no need to surrender its national sovereignty and take enormous unnecessary risks by joining a military group in advance.

When it comes to issues concerning Indian sovereignty and security, New Delhi’s self-respect and self-confidence will ask it to single-handedly take on China and/or Pakistan, instead of counting on the U.S. and other parties to fight for India. India’s only purpose in joining the Indo-Pacific Security Mechanism is to take advantage of other members to expand its development and security interests, rather than be taken advantage of and sacrifice its own independence and security.

The IPEF, launched in Tokyo this time, covers the four planks of connected economy, resilient economy, clean economy and fair economy. Of those, “connected economy” is compatible with the Chinese proposal on interconnectivity. Countries in the Indo-Pacific can simultaneously embrace the cooperation programs presented by China and the U.S., and China has every reason to be happy. Pressure from the U.S. “Indo-Pacific” edition will be conducive to mutual learning and common progress, and may even increase opportunities for China and the U.S. to cooperate on interconnectivity.

The same applies to IPEF’s “clean economy,” while “resilient economy” and “fair economy” may bring pressure to our country, including resetting industry chains in the name of “fairness.”

Our country should identify its own vulnerabilities in the face of the IPEF and carry out corresponding reforms so that we can apply to join at a proper time and help further open up our economy. The U.S. side has already excluded Taiwan from the IPEF, and the Chinese side is aware of this and should try its best to preserve the status quo. Considering that the domestic political divide and partisanship in the U.S. have become serious, it remains uncertain whether Trump will stage a comeback in the 2024 general election, or whether a potential Republican-administration in the future will withdraw from the IPEF.

Third is Taiwan. Although President Biden had another supposed slip of the tongue during his visit to Japan, his words did not add new factors to China-U.S. relations. There are two main aspects: whether the U.S. will protect Taiwan, and whether U.S. troops will enter Taiwan.

America’s Taiwan Relations Act has already confirmed in the form of legislation that the U.S. will help defend Taiwan. Although the legislation doesn’t say that U.S. troops will necessarily intervene, it does not exclude that possibility. Nor is Biden the first U.S. president to make an oral statement about defending Taiwan. In 1991, George W. Bush, as U.S. president, stated clearly that the U.S. would do whatever it takes to help defend Taiwan. Biden was just repeating what has been said, which wasn’t news.

Biden has not clarified whether U.S. troops would enter Taiwan in case o an armed conflict, now or in the past. He only said the U.S. military will “intervene.” That word has broad implications, including but not limited to U.S. military intelligence support, U.S. military advisers offering service, forward deployment of U.S. weapons, armed escorts by U.S. troops at sea, war zone mine-sweeping by the U.S. military, war tech training by the U.S. military or replenishment of equipment. President Biden may have had one or several such aspects in mind. Of course the most sensitive act — U.S. troops entering Taiwan to take part in an armed conflict — cannot be excluded.

Originally the Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that when a crisis arises in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. president needs to consult with the leaders of Congress and together determine how to help defend Taiwan. Currently, although tensions are seeming to escalate in the Strait, it is inappropriate, at this point, to define them as a crisis. Biden openly stating that the U.S. military will intervene to defend Taiwan without consulting with Congress may be a transgression. It is worth careful research to assess whether U.S. action can match its rhetoric when it comes to strengthening deterrence against China. 

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