US President Biden has his eye on China as he visits South Korea and Japan

WASHINGTON-

US President Joe Biden kicked off a six-day trip to South Korea and Japan on Thursday with the aim of building relationships with the leaders of the two nations while sending an unequivocal message to China: the reluctant invasion of Ukraine by Russia should make Beijing think about its own sword. rattling in the Pacific.

Biden’s visit will include meetings with newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Their discussions will focus on trade, increasing global supply chain resilience, growing concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program and the explosive spread of COVID-19 in that country.

While in Japan, Biden will also meet with other leaders of the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance known as the Quad, a group that includes Australia, India and Japan.

The United States under Biden has forged a united front with Democratic allies who combined their economic clout to make Russia pay the price for its invasion of Ukraine. This alliance includes South Korea and Japan. But even if Biden is to be feted by Yoon at a state dinner and have intimate conversations with Kishida, the US president knows those relationships must be deepened if they are to serve as a counterbalance to China’s ambitions.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the trip “would vividly show that the United States can both lead the free world in Russia’s war response to Ukraine, and that at the same time chart the course for effective, principled American leadership and engagement in a region that will define much of the future of the 21st century.”

The war in Eastern Europe has created a sense of urgency about China among key US allies in the Pacific. Many have come to see the moment as their own existential crisis – one in which it is essential to show China that it should not try to seize disputed territory through military action.

As a reminder of how Biden tried to balance security concerns in each hemisphere, shortly before leaving for Asia he hosted Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland at the White House for show their support for their applications for NATO membership.

“America’s alliances in Europe and Asia keep us – and I would say the world – strong and safe,” Biden said in the Rose Garden. “It is thanks to them that we face the challenges of our time, that we act for our people today and that we exploit the opportunities for a better tomorrow.”

Biden’s foreign trips come as he faces strong domestic headwinds: a shortage of infant formula, runaway budget inflation, a growing number of COVID-19 infections and growing impatience among a Democrat base bracing for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will likely result in a rollback of abortion rights.

The conundrums Biden faces in Asia are no less daunting.

China’s military assertiveness has grown during Biden’s presidency, with his provocative actions frequently putting the region on edge.

Last month, China held military drills around Taiwan after a group of US lawmakers arrived for talks on the self-governing island. Late last year, China stepped up sorties into Taiwan’s airspace. Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign state, but Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province and does not rule out the use of force to achieve unification.

Japan has reported frequent intrusions by Chinese military vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday criticized what he said were negative moves by Washington and Tokyo against Beijing during a video call with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.

“What arouses attention and vigilance is the fact that even before the American leader arrives at the meeting, the so-called joint Japanese-American anti-China rhetoric is already raising dust,” he said. said Wang, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. .

Meanwhile, South Korea could move closer to the United States under Yoon, who took office last week. South Korea’s new president has criticized his predecessor as “subservient” to China in seeking to balance relations with Washington and Beijing. To neutralize North Korea’s nuclear threats, Yoon pledged to seek a stronger US commitment to security.

The Biden administration has warned China against helping Russia in its war against Ukraine. In March, the United States informed its Asian and European allies that American intelligence had determined that China had signaled to Russia its willingness to provide military support and financial support to reduce the blow of the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.

Biden administration officials say the Russian invasion was a moment of clarity for some of Asia’s biggest powers, as financial sanctions and export bans were put in place to control Russia.

US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel, Biden’s top envoy to Japan, said the Japanese stood out by rallying eight of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Nations to support a UN vote against the invasion Russian.

“Japan was a pioneer that accelerated and set the pace for South Korea, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and others here in the Indo-Pacific region,” Emanuel said. about Tokyo’s support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Biden, who is making his first presidential trip to Asia, met briefly with Kishida on the sidelines of a UN climate conference last year shortly after the Japanese prime minister took office. He has yet to meet Yoon in person. The South Korean leader, a former prosecutor who came to power with no political or foreign policy experience, was elected in hotly contested elections.

Biden arrives amid an ongoing crisis in North Korea, where a massive COVID-19 outbreak is spreading through its unvaccinated population. North Korea acknowledged nationwide COVID-19 infections for the first time last week, ending a widely questioned claim that it was virus-free.

In recent months, North Korea has tested a series of missiles in what experts see as an attempt to modernize its weapons and pressure rivals to accept the country as a nuclear state and ease sanctions.

Sullivan said U.S. intelligence officials had determined there was a “real possibility” of North Korea conducting another ballistic missile or nuclear test at the time of Biden’s visit to Asia.

To be certain, China will also be watching closely for “cracks in the relationship” during Biden’s trip, said Scott Kennedy, China economic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Sullivan confirmed that Biden will use the trip to launch the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a proposed pact to establish rules for trade and digital standards, ensuring reliable supply chains, worker protections, decarbonization and tax and anti-corruption issues. Known as IPEF, it is a planned replacement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Donald Trump left in 2017 and the Biden administration has not joined.

In terms of economic power, the United States lags slightly behind China in the Pacific, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. But the institute’s analysis shows the possibility that a trade pact could amplify the combined power of the United States and its allies relative to China. Biden’s challenge is that the IPEF would not necessarily reduce tariff rates or give allied signatories better access to U.S. markets, which Asian countries seek.


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Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report

Kevin E. Boling