“How Transformative were Biden's Summits in Seoul and Tokyo?”
National Commentary: The United States
The prevailing attitude in the DC think tank community is that rarely has such a consequential presidential visit to Asia occurred. Three takeaways stand out: 1) the transformative impact on US relations with a key regional actor, South Korea; 2) the unveiling with Japan of a regional strategy—still in skeletal form, but far more substantial than anything previous since the end of the Cold War, including the shorter on substance “pivot to Asia”; and 3) the linkage to Asia of the response to the war in Ukraine, setting in motion new approaches to economic security and to connecting trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific support for the liberal international order. Making such achievements possible were 16 months of preparations by the Biden administration, which accelerated in response to Russia’s planning for aggression in Ukraine. Also critical was the transformation of Japan under Prime Minister Abe, continuing with Prime Minister Kishida into a full-fledged alliance partner in security thinking. The third and last, indispensable factor was Yoon Suk-yeol’s election as president of South Korea. Leadership was in place to act together boldly in 2022.
The Biden-led summits rallied states behind two tasks: to keep the pressure on Russia as it continued its war in Ukraine; and to mount greater pressure on China, as it planned further steps to seize Taiwan by force and to build a Sinocentric region across Asia. Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul were all conscious of these goals, recognizing the late May meetings as critical to putting meat behind their pursuit. In contrast to many summits, the long-term agenda was in the forefront. Yet, observers have been hesitant to recognize the transformative impact of the Biden trip, being distracted by secondary concerns.
The Transformative Impact on US-ROK Relations
US-ROK relations had long been suboptimal due to difference on how to deal with China, Russia, North Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. This is a remarkable list for an alliance repeatedly referred to as closer than ever. The Biden-Moon summit of May 2021 delivered what both administrations most needed, but its success was less than claimed, and the follow-up was meager. There was a different vibe to the Biden-Yoon summit—a personal connection, real trust, confident plans for follow-up, and genuine alignment on multiple dimensions.
On policies toward specific countries, there was notable progress. On North Korea, mutual distrust ended over “rewarding bad behavior” or “being stuck in strategic patience.” It was well understood that Biden had reached out often with no response, that both allies were ready for dialogue, and that the North would rather flex its nuclear threat than seek not only a path to denuclearization but even some limited nuclear deterrence through diplomacy. It was time to abandon hope for Chinese or Russian cooperation on this. Deterrence matters most.
Having built on Moon’s decision to join the sanctions coalition against Russia, the Biden-Yoon summit took steps to extend the lessons for economic security to China. Unlike Moon, who had resisted regional coordination for fear of incurring China’s wrath, Yoon joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), participating virtually in the Tokyo rollout, and welcomed a role in other US-led regional undertakings. Many in Washington had considered Seoul’s absence in mini-lateral groups formed in the Indo-Pacific as a serious gap in the US regional strategy. Giving into Chinese blackmail as if joining would be making a choice between China and the US is a mistake. Seoul’s relations with the two are different, and it needed to define its interests, reducing vulnerability to pressure. The Yoon-Biden summit gave the impression of a shared vision. Yet on protection of vital sea lanes past Taiwan and the South China Sea, Washington is clear that Yoon remains cautious.
On Japan, Biden saw progress but did not press for early action. This summit sought an agenda for the long-run, not deliverables, which may have lulled some into doubting its importance. Conditions were created for ROK-Japanese cooperation on an unprecedented level if certain stumbling blocks can be overcome, initially by forging among the Korean people a consensus on various aspects of bilateral ties. In supply chain reorganization and defense against North Korea earlier moves toward trilateralism may proceed those on other challenges.
With Yoon only in office for ten days and far-reaching changes under consideration, it is understandable that the Biden visit was short on details. It was aspirational, leaving guidelines for work to be done by one office after another now that they have their marching orders. On the whole, however, it altered the narrative about US-ROK relations, putting them in a broad regional and international context. This is far different from previous summits preoccupied with narrower themes.
The Unveiling with Japan of a Regional Strategy
Biden’s visit to Tokyo was a more finished product; yet it too set a new direction for multilateral action. On bilateral issues, clarity on the US response to aggression against Taiwan (despite aides walking back Biden’s abandonment of strategic ambiguity) was a gift to Japan; talks with the Australian prime minister (sworn in the day before) gave a boost to both the fight against climate change and the resistance to China’s security advance into the Pacific Islands; and Biden dodged a bullet over Ukraine while pledging joint defense production with India. The main takeaways, however, were the unveiling of IPEF and the boosting of the Quad, keeping the spotlight on economic security.
More than at any other time, there was a sense that a sequel was at last unfolding to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” with China in the crosshairs. Days earlier, Biden had hosted ASEAN leaders in Washington. Now he was setting down a marker on Taiwan, strengthening a mini-lateral that China detested, and forging a critical technological alliance. The response of Kishida was that of a full-fledged partner doing its share.
The Ukraine war and US-led response provided the background for Biden’s meetings, mattering in at least three ways: 1) China’s firm support for Russia and the obvious parallel between its intentions in Taiwan and Russia’s attack on Ukraine worsened China’s relationship with the United States and its allies; 2) the economic security moves in response to Russia loomed as a dry run for parallel, if less fulsome, supply chain and technological decoupling toward China; and 3) there was a new understanding of how to work together to defend the liberal, international order, aligning the US, Japan, the ROK, and also Australia as Asia’s core, a community with shades of NATO rather than a hub and spokes configuration. The illusion of “in economics close to China, in security close to the US” was dispelled, given the new awareness of economic security. Also gone was the separation of Asia from Europe and Northeast Asia from Southeast Asia as if they were exclusive domains. A wholistic order as in the Cold War stands before us, the US insisted, inclusive of values as well as interests. Whether health, energy, high tech, or security, the world is one, but globalization without economic boundaries is no longer a prospect.
Another turnabout was the shift from pessimism that China, Russia, and North Korea are becoming more aggressive due to confidence in their economic strength to they are growing desperate due to alarm about growing economic troubles, some linked to the pandemic and others to fears of new restrictions due to views of economic security. Biden’s May summits signified the close linkage of Russia to China in the thinking of the US and its allies. Given the simultaneous lockdown in Shanghai owing to China’s “zero-COVID” policy, and the repeated missile tests of North Korea, a mood of bipolarity had been growing.
US optimism was tempered by a loss of domestic self-confidence in light of the continued Trump wrecking ball and uncertainty about the degree to which Yoon can stay the course. Attention was redirected to the still uncertain response to the summit in Seoul and the needed follow-up, which would be more complicated than with Tokyo.
The Linkage to Asia of the Response to the Ukraine War
An unusual aspect of Biden’s travel to Asia was awareness that the follow-up—only a month later—would take place in Europe at the NATO summit. Both Kishida and Yoon were preparing to attend in Madrid. The agenda for NATO and the EU, given the importance of economic security, no longer could be separated from that of the main US alliances in Asia. With eight of the ten largest economies on board, including those with the most critical technologies, security could be refocused on supply chains, targeted de-coupling, and export controls, as never before. Not only would Russia’s aggression be high on the agenda, so too would possible future aggression by China.
Biden’s stops in Northeast Asia were not a discrete renewal of Asian diplomacy after a half year or so of preoccupation with Europe, but a link in a chain of reconstruction of the US-led, liberal, international order. Through the first months of 2022 his administration had made clear that it sought Asian buy-in to the response to Russia with clarity that the approach taken has ramifications for China too, given threats it is issuing to regional peace and stability. European countries came to see the threat from China as more serious, just as Tokyo and Seoul recognized the significance of the Ukraine war for their own security.
The demands of economic security know few boundaries unlike those of military security. What countries cannot obtain from one leading economic power they can purchase from another. The Ukraine war is an eye-opener for a new outlook on security for the coming period.
The overlap of Russian and Chinese critiques of the existing order and justifications for changing it by force has also brought Europe and the US allies of Asia together. China’s support for Russian justifications of using force against Ukraine bring home the parallels. The logical next step is for NATO and the key US alliances in Asia to become linked.
National Commentary: South Korea
On the one hand, the Biden visit to Seoul drew praise for Yoon in his inaugural summit on the world stage. He boosted the image of Seoul as a major player, actively shaping the rules of an emerging order. On the other, it raised concern of deepening danger from steps that went beyond the comfort zone of past presidents at a time of global crisis. The conservative response was enthusiastic, the progressive reaction was skeptical with a touch of alarmism, and there was a middle group nervous about aspects of Biden’s trip to the region but reserving their verdict. Worries about China and North Korea cast a lingering shadow.
The response to Biden’s visit to South Korea was mostly positive. In light of the strong public support for the alliance, that was expected. Helpful was the fact that North Korea had spurned talks, China’s role in support of North Korea and Russia had further soured its image, and difficult choices had yet to be spelled out. The focus on close cooperation on technology played to South Korea’s strength, as the visits by Biden to Samsung and Hyundai offices showed the US need for its ally, not pressure on Seoul. Yoon came across as a statesman despite his lack of experience in diplomacy. He was not a passive follower so much as a leader in forging the rules for the next era. If earlier asymmetry stood out with the US providing security, now the South Korean role in providing technology pointed to two-way ties.
South Koreans were nervous about the alliance after Trump’s demand for much higher payments for the Special Measures Agreement and new fear about abandonment instead of extended deterrence in the face of North Korea’s rising nuclear threat. Biden’s personal rapport with Yoon and security assurances were welcome as was the renewal of joint military exercises, which Trump had reduced. While some on the progressive side warned that a crisis loomed since North Korea would not be ignored, as it rattled its missile capabilities, there was no impending test of how to reengage able to galvanize discontent.
Given the US focus on Ukraine in recent months, Biden’s visit offered some reassurance that Asia was not overshadowed. To be sure, it was not the Korean Peninsula but the Indo-Pacific that was showcased. In Yoon Biden found an eager partner, unlike Moon. Yet, the degree of South Korean support for the full range of sanctions on Russia loomed as an issue not fully resolved. Whether because of business interests or lingering fear of a further Russian tilt to North Korea, this challenge hovered in the background. If Seoul hesitated in pressuring Moscow, it was assumed that it would be more reluctant to take measures for economic security opposed by Beijing. This US concern, recognized in Seoul, could not be addressed clearly by a new administration leading a divided country on regional issues. The summit was not conclusive.
While abandonment was on people’s minds, fearing a distracted US due to events in Europe and lack of urgency over North Korea, the summit shifted the focus for some to entrapment. Biden’s remark on Taiwan in Tokyo only heightened that concern. Knowing China’s tough stance on South Korean involvement in the Quad and other regional initiatives it saw as containment, fear of a repeat of the sanctions of 2016 was palpable in some circles. While Yoon and Biden narrowed the gap in responding to China visible a year earlier when Moon and Biden had met and in the limited follow-up by Moon, many expected that the gap still mattered. The shift toward a regional and global alliance aroused some criticism. Along with economic security, it was a template for a comprehensive strategic alliance, which some saw as coming at the expense of the focus on North Korea and reunification.
The progressive camp found many things of concern in Biden’s visits. Some treated the US as the disruptor of the status quo, refusing to accept China’s rise and containing China without sufficient reason. Thus, tensions are rising in the region, which could be calmed if the US were more restrained. The ostensible reason for expanding the scope and scale of joint military exercises is North Korea, but some warned that another reason was to contain China with a three-way military framework including Japan. Suspicious of Japan’s real intentions and echoing Chinese charges against the Quad—now proceeding from pandemic and climate change measures to policing the movement of Chinese ships—writers warned of aggressive intentions. IPEF aroused warnings of “economic containment” of China. Hesitant to follow the US lead fully on Ukraine and alarmed by Biden’s statement on Taiwan in Tokyo, the progressives charged that Biden seeks to fundamentally alter the nature of the alliance after seven decades, already seen with Japan and now with South Korea, resulting in greater chaos, they said.
Contrasts were drawn between the two May summits with Biden of Moon and Yoon. The first maintained a balance between the US and China in their strategic competition. At the second, however, Seoul was faulted by progressives for tilting sharply to the US side and even turning hostile to China. The new theme of “economic security” drew criticism as a way to contain China. In 2021, the joint statement said “our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region,” but in 2022 Yoon praised the US strategy as if Seoul had no other and led China to think Seoul had joined in containment. On Taiwan, all that was said in 2021 was “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In 2022 the Taiwan Strait was called an “essential element in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” For human rights there was another challenge to China, at least seeming to point to Hong Kong and Xinjiang by saying that the leaders are “sharing our mutual concerns regarding human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.” Finally, on North Korea, mention of the Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore joint statement was omitted, shifting the framework for diplomacy, and human rights were raised more clearly. Progressives were wary of involvement against Russia and supply chains to be secured against “countries that don’t share our values,” i.e., China. They recognized that foreign policy was being reoriented.
For conservatives there was praise, albeit, in some cases, mixed with notes of caution. IPEF was greeted as US reengagement on trade after its withdrawal from TPP, but it remained too vague to answer critical questions. Indeed, a last-minute change had diluted it to attract more signatories from launching negotiations to consultations to negotiate. Yet, the shift away from Moon’s wariness of regional goals was much welcomed. Ahead would be diplomacy aimed at trilateralism even if caution toward Japan persisted. Yoon’s likely visit in late June to join a NATO summit may reveal more support for Ukraine and for linking Asia and Europe. A host of discussions about economic security await. As Seoul joins others in resisting Putin’s use of energy for leverage, it coordinates over how to limit Xi’s use of supply chains for pressure.
Progressives are on the defense. Yoon has the initiative. Even those who remain cautious largely approve of Biden’s initiatives in the face of widening threats. The follow-up to the summit holds promise to go much further than the straddling long attributed to Seoul’s leaders. If Pyongyang or Beijing applies new pressure on Seoul, the path forward is likely to reflect polarization now under way not renewed balancing. Whereas US leaders see an historic opportunity/urgency to transform an alliance that for two decades or longer has not fully reflected the challenges both countries face, South Koreans are divided/ hesitant in light of unresolved concerns. Given uncertainty about US leadership and opposition in the National Assembly, consensus between Biden and Yoon is no guarantee that a long-term strategy is now on track. Much remains to clarify and set in motion over the rest of the year.
Coming on the heels of Moon’s ambivalence about a regional agenda and recurrent South Korean expectations of their country’s agency as a force for change in Northeast Asia, the message from the Biden visit was not easy for some to accept. Rather than shaping the future of the peninsula through its diplomacy, Seoul is reduced to signing onto a US-led strategy in which Tokyo is already heavily invested. Cautious responses can be expected as each of the implications is made clear.
National Commentary: Japan
US-Japan relations had been on the upswing under Abe, but various uncertainties lingered. Obama was considered too weak on China. Abe’s wooing of Putin and early antagonizing of Park Geun-hye did not win favor in Washington. Trump was a wildcard, who could not be trusted to prioritize alliances and the full range of multilateralism that Abe was pursuing in Southeast and South Asia. As Biden took office, the legacy of suspicion toward Democrats lingered, but in 2021 Biden did a lot to overcome such doubts, as Kishida forged close relations.
Biden’s visit to East Asia drew the most comprehensive applause in Japan. There was no powerful opposition raising the alarm about a negative reaction from the likes of North Korea and China. Kishida had prepared for months unlike Yoon, bolstering sanctions against Russia and embracing the regional framework Biden rolled out. He drew strong links between Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific, remarking, "unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force, like in Ukraine, should never be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific." Given longstanding worries about US weakness in the Indo-Pacific, Biden’s firm comment on Taiwan and other initiatives posed little problem for Japan’s elite.
Already in January 2022 Biden and Kishida had formed an economic policy consultative committee. Kishida was taking economic security seriously, while planning to raise defense spending substantially. This was well received by conservatives in Japan, and the progressive side is mostly marginalized, unlike in South Korea. They have failed to give a clear response to how Japan can navigate various threats, which it also acknowledges. The idealism seen in South Korea is little visible.
Although Japanese remain suspicious about South Korea’s change of course, they welcomed Biden’s efforts there. Japanese fear that Yoon will be short-lived or unable to have a big impact, as was true of Park. For Seoul to join the Quad or CPTPP, a sense of optimism is needed in Tokyo. That has yet to gain momentum, although diplomacy is under way. Aligned to build on the 2015 agreement, Tokyo and Seoul must first clear away the detritus of five years. Japan lacks confidence that will happen after being burned, and it insists that Seoul clear away timebombs, disposing of court cases. The 2019 Japanese export controls and South Korean responses are proving hard to undo.
Biden’s visits to Seoul and Tokyo prompted more discussion of what steps can be taken soon. Security trilateralism over North Korea is high on the list. Galvanizing the private sector through supply chain arrangements is suggested. Another idea is to take advantage of the fascination with K-pop and Korean culture in Japan. After all, in 1998 there were hopes that Korean openings to Japanese culture would be a gamechanger, and early in the 2000s Korean dramas won the hearts of Japanese women. Young people are positively inclined to cultural imports from the other side. Potential for a bottom-up reset is seen by observers, but there is no institutional basis for moving forward.
Japan is growing more comfortable bringing values to the forefront. It considers itself the originator of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and happily played host to the Quad summit. This shifts attention away from narrow, nationalist thinking. Trust in the US is a driving force.
Questions endure over whether Tokyo viewed Seoul in the context of IPEF, the Ukraine War, and the Indo-Pacific region. Ironic comfort was taken in the longstanding thinking that Seoul’s deviation was not just in its bilateral relationship with Tokyo, but in its entire outlook on foreign policy: whether to North Kore, China, or the Indo-Pacific. Even if US officials demurred when such accusations were raised, they were a mainstay of accusation against the Park and Moon administrations. The combination of Seoul’s response to the Ukraine war, the election of Yoon, and the Biden-Yoon summit made such views less tenable.
Recognition of the new opportunity with Seoul in mid-2022 was slow to sink in. It was convenient to repeat that the “ball is still in Seoul’s court,” as if the cont4xt had changed abruptly. This put the burden on the Biden team to keep making the case to the Kishida cabinet. Rather than tackle the difficult challenge of bilateral distrust, it appeared to realize that progress would be easier to concentrate on forging habits of cooperation in multilateral settings, especially trilateral meetings.
A major transformation under way in Japan, advanced by Abe even if he was also its principal obstructer, was the embrace of universalism in values over parochial Japanese nationalism. As often as “FOIP” was mentioned, it served as a symbol of the broader worldview. On issues in Northeast Asia change proved harder—South Korea, North Korea, and Russia evoked national identity themes distinct from the shared values sought by the Biden administration. The Ukraine war opened the door for reconsideration of Russia, the loss of hope in diplomacy with North Korean limited its national identity significance, and hope for rethinking relations with South Korea was slowly growing. With Kishida’s quick grasp of the narrative for facing Russian aggression, the new focus on global economic security held promise for Tokyo.
Japanese were coming to link five security threats in the vicinity. The threat of a Taiwan contingency loomed large, but there was a threat of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea or aggression against the Senkakus, a growing North Korean threat, and a long-feared alliance between China and Russia. The Biden summit pointed to interlinked dangers and newly shared preparation through economic security. Secure supply chains and technological protection required a joint response, and Tokyo took pride in being first among US Asian allies.
While the Diet was on board with security legislation, companies in Japan are not so easy to corral, deferring less to government over security. Even ministries pose a problem, used to work autonomously.
Critical to Biden’s success in appeals to Tokyo as well as Seoul in 2022 is awareness in the region that China is intensifying its threats. Angry over new Japanese rhetoric about Taiwan and its response to the Ukraine war, Chinese keep using the phrase “playing with fire” and warn of severe consequences over NATO expansion in the Pacific. They resurrect charges of “Japanese militarism.” Attacking the Quad, AUKUS, the US-Japan-South Korea triangle, and other multilateral arrangements as steps to contain China, they regard the situation in Ukraine much as that in North Korea as a pretext for Japan to become more assertive, thus destabilizing the region. Kishida’s announcement of a substantial increase in defense spending at the Biden summit is taken as a sign of militarism in the critical 50th anniversary year of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations. Such extreme views only intensify Japanese support for the agenda Biden is proposing.
The combination of China’s “wolf warrior” tone, Biden’s sustained and determined strategic outreach, and the Ukraine war have transformed the Japan-US alliance. Japanese largely approve, but various tests lie ahead. How closely will Japan align itself with NATO in the coming days? Will Japan show leadership in building a new relationship with South Korea? What new steps in Japan-US relations are anticipated? The new era is only beginning, but the May summits were welcomed in Tokyo with high expectations for what lies ahead.