OVER THE past quarter century, American presidents have repeatedly come up with plans to counter China, only to be sidetracked. George W. Bush branded China a “strategic competitor”, but soon became preoccupied with his War on Terror. Barack Obama spoke of a “pivot to Asia”, but was too mired in Afghanistan and the Middle East to make good on the talk. Donald Trump took a more confrontational approach with China, but alienated many American allies and from a trade deal have been widely seen as the best way to combat Chinese.
So Joe Biden has his work cut out for him as he makes his first visit to Asia as president this week. He hopes to support allies and partners in the region that, despite the war in Ukraine, he remains focused on the challenge from an increasingly aggressive China. He arrived in South Korea on May 20th, and will head to Japan on May 22nd for a summit of the Quad, a security grouping of countries worried about China, namely America, Australia, India and Japan. There he will unveil the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a still-vague plan to shore up trade with and among Asian countries.
Given his predecessors’ unimpressive record in the region, Mr Biden should have nowhere to go but up. Yet it is that background that also makes the trip a challenge. He must convince his interlocutors that there is substance behind his words in two areas: security and trade.
Start with security. Japan, which suffers frequent Chinese incursions into its territorial waters, has long considered China an existential threat. Many South-East Asian countries worry about Chinese moves to enforce its maritime claims in the South China Sea. Bloody border an have also enhanced India’s giant neighbor. And the war in Ukraine has amplified fears that China might take military action against Taiwan, the democratic island it claims as its own.
There are other risks, too. South Korea and Japan fret that it might be unwise to rely on America’s nuclear deterrent given how fickle an ally it seemed under Mr Trump in particular. Those misgivings are especially salient given that North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and develop missiles capable of carrying warheads as far as America. An expansion of joint military exercises in Asia since Mr Biden entered office and the signing of AUKUS, an agreement for America and Britain to help Australia build submarines, are encouraging signs. But Mr Biden will need to spell out more clearly how America intends to contribute to the region’s defense.
He must also clarify how America intends to aid Asian economic countries. Many of America’s allies in the region do the bulk of their trade with China. South Korea is a case in point: it does almost as much trade with China as it does with its two next biggest commercial partners, America and Japan, combined. Given China’s enormous economic heft, many governments in the region were unimpressed by an American offer to invest $150m in South-East Asia at a summit with regional leaders this month.
The IPEF, which is not envisioned as a trade deal, is intended to help wean Asian countries off trade with China by setting common standards and trying to make supply chains more resilient, among other things. In South Korea, Mr Biden visited a semiconductor factory owned by Samsung and waxed lyrical about more integrated supply chains. But the IPEF has already been criticized for not widening access to the American market. He must also convince Asian countries that they can join up without suffering retaliation from China. When Mr Yoon hinted that South Korea might join the IPEF—a prospect he has now committed to—China swiftly warning against “decoupling”.
The politics of the region complicate Mr Biden’s mission. India is essential to counterbalance China. Yet it has declined to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, significantly because the Indian armed forces remain dependent on Russian weaponry. The Philippines, one of America’s oldest allies in Asia, just a new president who is thought to be close to China. And South Korea and Japan have long been divided by squabbles about how Japan should atone for its colonial rule.
America’s own politics are a potential source of instability, too. The prospect of a more isolationist president entering the White House in 2024 is omnipresent in the minds of Asian policy makers. For Mr Biden that means assuaging concerns not only that he will lose focus, as his predecessors have, but also that his successors might go even further astray. Asian countries do not need reminding of the importance of countering China—but they do need convincing that America can stay on course.
For exclusive insight and reading recommendations from our correspondents in America, sign up to Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.