US President Joe Biden’s maiden trip to Asia is an important milestone in assessing the direction and effectiveness of US policy in the Indo-Pacific – a region identified by Republican and Democratic administrations as holding the key to prosperity and American security. The Asia tour followed the President’s welcome to the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington and included stops in Seoul and Tokyo for bilateral meetings and participation in the second meeting of the leaders of the Quad. This diplomatic engagement in the open court was crucial, given the importance of the objectives at stake: to strengthen the rules-based order throughout Eurasia; deepening strategic relationships with and among US Asian allies; and launching the economic component of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
The essential mission of the presidential visit was to reassure the region that the United States will remain committed to its Indo-Pacific tilt, even as it weathers the worst crisis Europe has suffered in seven decades following the the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By visiting two Asian democratic allies – Japan and South Korea – who have proactively participated in the economic sanctions campaign to deter and punish Russian aggression, the Biden administration has sent a powerful message about the indivisibility of the rules-based order. In other words, unchecked military aggression and economic coercion weaken peace and stability everywhere, and the United States is uniquely positioned to mobilize allies across Europe and Asia to meet the challenge.
Bilateral and minilateral
Biden’s trip was timely as South Korea and Japan are each expanding their strategic horizons in ways that complement US interests in the region. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who had only been in office for 11 days when he hosted Biden, has pledged to move away from the previous Moon administration’s narrower focus on inter-Korean relations to embrace a broader regional and global role for South Korea in technology and supply chains, climate and health security, and other areas. Yoon’s more skeptical view of China is behind his desire to intensify cooperation with the Quad and to coordinate with the United States on economic security measures (screening of investments and export control, among others). Therefore, the leaders’ joint announcement highlighted the promise of a comprehensive strategic alliance that leverages the US-Korea partnership beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Japan, under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has also raised its diplomatic stature. In response to the Ukraine crisis, Kishida quickly set aside former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s longstanding policy of engagement with Russia, closed ranks with the G-7 in sanctions regime coordination and intensified the diplomatic contacts with the Organization of the Treaty of the North Atlantic and European Union . Earlier this month, Japan’s parliament passed an economic security law to develop and protect emerging technologies and increase the resilience of critical infrastructure and supply chains. Concerns over China have once again provided the backdrop for the rise of a defensive economic government in Japan, a key US ally. Biden’s visit comes at a good time as the Japanese government debates its future security and defense policy, with plans to release a new national security strategy later this year. Kishida’s party’s support for acquiring counter-attack capabilities and plans to increase defense spending close to 2% of GDP did not elicit a public reaction. In fact, Kishida enjoys a high approval rating of 61.5% in public opinion polls. A more capable Japan on the defense front was hailed in the Biden-Kishida joint statement as essential to the alliance’s deterrence and response capabilities.
Japan continues to be a great Quad champion. The holding of the Tokyo summit immediately after the Australian elections provided this group of liberal democracies with an important opportunity to emphasize that the minilateral security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific are now more robust and able to withstand the leadership transitions that have convicted in the past. Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wasted no time in expressing his Labor government’s support for the Quad and the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. In Tokyo, Quad leaders inaugurated a major initiative to raise maritime domain awareness in countries across the region to combat “dark shipping,” a practice that facilitates illegal activity by rendering ships largely undetectable.
The Indo-Pacific economic framework
Bolstering deterrence against aggression and harnessing the growing strategic ambitions of Asian democratic allies with bilateral and regional meetings were not the only goals of Biden’s maiden trip to Asia. The tour also aimed to rekindle American economic leadership. With its new economic plan, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the Biden team is confident it can square the circle: stick to a worker-centric trade policy that deems tariff cuts harmful to workers’ interests. Americans, and intensify shaping the rules of economic integration of the most dynamic region of the world. IPEF’s intent is to signal that the United States will not cede leadership to China and that it has the convening power to offer practical solutions to critical issues such as bottlenecks in supply chain, greening of infrastructure and diffusion of digital technologies. .
The new framework favors flexibility and speed of negotiations. Participants can choose from four pillars: resilient trade (standards for the digital economy, ethical use of AI, labor and environmental standards), supply chain resilience (early warning systems, diversification efforts) , climate and infrastructure, tax policy and the fight against anti-corruption measures. IPEF’s debut exceeded expectations by enlisting 12 other countries with strong participation from Southeast Asia (Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia), as well as India. In total, IPEF countries account for 40% of global GDP.
Headwinds and Challenges
While these are all positive trends for US interests in the Indo-Pacific, the headwinds are also strong. Developing Asia is reluctant to condemn Russian aggression and focuses more on food security, rising oil prices and pandemic recovery. Japan and South Korea have expanded their foreign policy ambitions, but they have yet to demonstrate whether they possess the political will and creativity to mend relations and coordinate on common interests bilaterally and in trio with the United States. United. And while the Biden administration is correctly focused on bolstering cross-Strait stability, its messaging on strategic ambiguity is sloppy, and it has yet to elevate the economic relationship with Taiwan to the true measure of its potential. In Tokyo, Biden again misrepresented US policy, as there is no official commitment to Taiwan’s defense and the US has not invited the island to join IPEF.
The hard task of restoring US economic leadership lies before us. Because there is less than it seems in the deployment of the IPEF. IPEF participants agreed only to “launch collective consultations with a view to future negotiations”. The participants have not yet decided which of the IPEF streams they will participate in. The very choice of a modular approach in IPEF is important, as it will prevent consistent adoption of the rules by all members. IPEF remains a big question mark: given the diversity of its membership, will it be possible to generate ambitious commitments on controversial issues such as data governance and labor standards? Will there be binding obligations or will the framework be based primarily on flexible co-operation commitments? Without congressional ratification, can IPEF survive long in highly polarized American politics?
The IPEF is welcomed in the region as a sign of American recommitment to economic integration. But leadership requires knowing your followers. The Biden administration is betting it can lead with a different kind of economic partnership — one that forgoes binding tariff liberalization — in a region that still sees trade deals as the currency of economic opportunity and growth. geopolitical weight. Whether the US bet pays off or not will likely be one of the most important consequences of Biden’s trip to Asia.