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Foreign Policy

The Biden Administration’s Attempts to Deepen Relations in the Indo-Pacific

May 31, 2023

President Biden recently wrapped up an important two weeks of meetings with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Biden hoped to demonstrate to these two countries and the rest of the world a concerted effort by his administration to develop relationships and improve ties with Indo-Pacific countries. In both meetings, world leaders traveled to Washington intending to secure military and economic assurances. The Biden administration took action, through various promises, that helped alleviate concerns that both presidents may have had prior to their trip. The U.S.’s ability to address anxieties from critical allies in the region will be vital in the face of an increasingly more assertive China.  

South Korea 

Yoon’s visit to Washington was partly to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea. However, the primary purpose of the trip was to secure security commitments from the United States. South Korea is feeling pressure from North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities and China’s militarization of the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui of North Korea recently asserted that “The position of the DPRK as a world-class nuclear power is final and irreversible,” and the most recent annual Pentagon report indicated that China will complete its nuclear modernization plans by 2035. These regional tensions lead to a security environment that is very uncomfortable and uncertain for South Korea.

As such, South Korea has been contemplating accruing its own nuclear weapons to increase its deterrence capabilities. The U.S., along with the rest of the world, fear this as it could potentially lead to further nuclear proliferation. Thus, Biden offered new strategic plans to reassure South Koreans of Washington’s commitment to supporting security in their region, with the ultimate goal of alleviating Korean fears stemming from North Korea’s increased nuclear capabilities. The announced nuclear pact also reinforces the United States’ military commitment to Northeast Asia, dispatches strategic assets to the peninsula, and increases the transparency of the U.S.’s military planning.

At a joint news conference last Wednesday, President Yoon and President Biden announced the Washington Declaration. According to Yoon, “The first key outcome is extended deterrence… Our two countries have agreed to immediate bilateral presidential consultations in the event of North Korea’s nuclear attack and promised to respond swiftly, overwhelmingly, and decisively using the full force of the alliance including the United States’ nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, South Korea and the U.S. agreed to establish a Nuclear Consultative Group to discuss the details of extended deterrence. The U.S. will also deploy nuclear submarines to the peninsula for the first time since 1980 and increase the number of military assets it sends to the country. 

The two countries also sought to improve economic ties during Yoon’s visit. Yoon, who often refers to himself as the “the No. 1 salesman” for South Korea, prioritized negotiating more favorable terms for Korean businesses. The goal was to gain more suitable positioning for Korean firms in response to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Action and possibly begin developing a Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. On the day before the summit, Yoon stated at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce event that the U.S. relationship must “evolve into a supply chain and future-oriented, innovative-technology alliance.” He added that it is vital that the U.S. and South Korea cooperate on core technologies and would be ideal partners for “friend-shoring.” Increased economic engagement would also help reinforce South Korea against repercussions from China, such as when China reduced the number of tourists to South Korea by 20 percent in response to Korea’s deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD. 

The Philippines 

Marcos and the Philippines' grievances against China are not primarily focused on nuclear issues. Instead, Marcos will attempt to secure security commitments with an eye on sustaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. Filipino ships are constantly harassed and intimidated by Chinese ships. In a recent incident, Chinese and Philippine ships nearly collided. To this end, regardless of Chinese rhetoric and action warning against expanding military ties with the U.S., the Philippines intends to show it will not back down. This was emphasized not long ago through the Balikatan exercises, where more than 17,000 military personnel from the U.S., the Philippines, and Australia participated in combined field exercises.

During Marcos’ time in Washington, Biden affirmed America’s “ironclad” commitment to defend the Philippines in the event of a military conflict. The White House also announced its intentions to deepen military ties, and the Department of Defense released bilateral defense guidelines for the U.S. and the Philippines. This increased engagement includes the U.S. transferring three C-130 aircraft and additional coastal patrol vessels.

On the economic side, Marcos, who has made significant promises to improve the Filipino economy, also sought the U.S.’s assistance in supporting the Philippines’ economic development. Prior to his trip to Washington, Marcos stated a desire to tap into the U.S.’s green bonds. While in Washington, the two global leaders announced numerous economic initiatives. Most noteworthy was President Biden’s announcement of a Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to the Philippines. Additionally, the U.S. will launch an Open RAN 5G interoperability lab in Manila and establish a bilateral Labor Working Group. The White House also promised to utilize USAID, invest in sustainable infrastructure projects, and expand U.S.-Philippines air transportation links.

The U.S. has also indicated it will increase cooperation with the Philippines on various initiatives that will boost the U.S.’s soft power in the country. This is highlighted by the U.S.’s announcement to “provide $70 million to support more than 2,000 exchange participants between the Philippines and the United States over the next ten years,” the establishment of the Philippines-U.S. Friendship Fellowship (PUFF), $5.3 million for disaster risk reduction and resilience programming, and more.

In the past, the United States has been accused of neglecting the Indo-Pacific region, especially regarding economic engagement. President Yoon and President Marcos’ trips to Washington and their subsequent deals reveal the Biden administration’s intent to reverse this trend and ensure that the U.S. presence is felt in the region. In only the secondstate visit of Biden’s presidency, President Yoon and Biden connected to show the strength of their partnership and portray a united front to all. The two leaders’ close relationship was fully displayed when Biden invited Yoon to sing American Pie. In terms of American ties with the Philippines, President Biden and President Marcos released a joint statement signifying the “special ties” between the two countries and the goal to increase cooperation in numerous areas of importance. Biden has started down on a trek to improve and affirm ties with key Indo-Pacific countries, but it must continue this trend if the U.S. wishes to remain relevant in the region. 

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