Why Russia’s war in Ukraine complicates President Biden’s first trip to Asia

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a continent away from South Korea and Japan. But when President Biden meets with leaders from Asia and Australia this week, he will face a series of challenges related to the Kremlin-waged war.

I’ll cover Biden’s trip to Asia (follow me Twitter for updates), and I wanted to leave you with a primer on the obstacles Biden faces after arriving in Seoul on Friday.

Why is a European war a problem in US-Asia relations?

The most important factor is time and attention. American presidents have long promised that Asia would be their top foreign policy priority, with a particular focus on China. The strategy has been dubbed the “Pivot for Asia” under President Obama. It continued in a different form under President Trump, who called China a deadly enemy of his “America first” agenda and sought 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 making his first stay in the region. Trump arrived in Asia, visiting five countries during a marathon, in November of his first year in office. It was easier without a pandemic, and Trump ruffled allies with his antagonistic rhetoric. However, Trump’s journey sent a signal of commitment.

American allies, so far, appear to have been impressed by Biden’s ability to garner international support for Ukraine.

But they are concerned that Ukraine is “undermining US commitments to Asia,” said Sheila A. Smith, senior researcher for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power. ” “The president himself said he will go there to reassure the 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 it is still oriented towards Asia

“They will undoubtedly say that,” said Susan Thornton, a retired diplomat who has spent nearly three decades focusing on Asia. “It’s the biggest lie to the government, but they’ll tell.”

Thornton and other experts have said that managing multiple crises and strategic initiatives is actually very difficult. Time is limited, as are senior counselors and cabinet secretaries. The United States is also spending money and building weapons as part of the effort in Europe, scarring its resources.

Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordinator at the National Security Council, said it was clear that the White House was focusing intense attention on Ukraine. In a forum at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington last week, Campbell said the war was “animating” for Biden and his senior team during “an incredibly intense, critical period.”

Even so, it would be bad for the US to look away from the ball in Asia. “The biggest strategic challenges will be played in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Campbell.

“There was a feeling that in previous administrations we had started at a steady pace to focus on East Asia or the Indo-Pacific and then find ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps distance us a little,” he continued. . “I think there is a deep feeling that this can’t happen again.”

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who briefed reporters Wednesday, said the two regions are not competing for attention because Asian allies were cooperating with American-led sanctions against Russia while European allies were standing. investing more in Asia in coordination with the US economic strategy.

How do the Asian allies view the invasion of Ukraine?

suspicious. The attack by Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised concerns among US allies that it could encourage 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 maintained a minimal army since changing its constitution after World War II, has increased its defense spending, with a proposal to double his budget over 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 stressed that the United States is bound by security agreements to defend those. countries, unlike Ukraine, which has no such agreement.

Taiwan also has no such guarantee.

So are they all in agreement with US sanctions against Russia

No. Biden’s journey has two missions. He will visit newly installed 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 primarily to counter Chinese power, includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

India is the wild card. It has bolstered its economy and growing military with Russian weapons and cheap oil. His government has resisted the signing of sanctions or strong statements condemning Russia, despite pressure from the United States

Michael Green, an Asian specialist in the George W. Bush administration, said creating a united front that includes India “will be the hardest diplomacy of the trip.”

He foresees behind-the-scenes pressure on India to take a stronger stance on Russia, but nothing in the public to “shame” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It is too important to keep the group together in the face of an ever stronger China.

“They want to focus on the grand prize here” of bringing India “inside the tent” of countries aligned against China, said Milan Vaishnav, South Asia Program Director at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

You didn’t mention North Korea. Are we done worrying about them?

If only. Pyongyang launched three ballistic missiles last week in another test designed to remind the world that it remains committed to its nuclear program. Such missile launches often occur ahead of high-profile US visits to the region.

The White House has said more may be on the way.

“We have indicated in fairly clear terms that our intelligence reflects the very real possibility that there will be further missile tests – including a long-range missile test or a nuclear test or, frankly, both – in the days before, on or after the president’s trip. in the region, ”Sullivan said.

“We are preparing for any eventuality, including the possibility of such a provocation taking place while we are in Korea or Japan,” he added, telling reporters that the administration is in contact with officials in South Korea, Japan and China.

However, Campbell said the US government has “tried on numerous occasions to contact North Korean interlocutors to establish a dialogue.”

But it didn’t happen. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, withdrew further from the world stage during the COVID-19 pandemic and is largely in control of where and when to restart nuclear negotiations.

The problem is likely to arise when Biden meets Yoon from South Korea. 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 should take a tougher line against the rogue state.