The Korea Herald


[Hwang’s China and the World] Strategic puzzles that Biden’s Asia Tour left

By Choi He-suk

Published : Sept. 14, 2022 - 18:22

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Wang Junsheng Wang Junsheng
Choe Won-gi Choe Won-gi

From May 20-24, international attention shifted to the Indo-Pacific region from Ukraine, where a power struggle between the US and NATO against Russia has been taking place since mid-February.

US President Joe Biden attended the “Quad” summit in Japan after visiting Korea in May. It was only 10 days after the inauguration of Korea’s new government headed by President Yoon Suk-yeol. As Biden selected South Korea for his first destination in Asia, he certainly attracted Korea to the US side, considering the country’s longtime neutral stance between the US and China.

At the meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- an informal alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia -- in Japan, Biden retuned the harmony between participating countries as they still have spaces to fill in, and established the Quad’s frame as the core engine of the Indo-Pacific strategy. In addition, the Indo-Pacific strategy’s economic plan, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, was launched with more countries from Southeast Asia and others.

How should we look at this United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy and cooperation with its allies? Among all the words and implications, what is feasible or what is not feasible? And what will actually attract further investments?

It is necessary to puzzle together the pieces following Biden‘s spectacular Asia tour.

This week’s interview involves two diplomatic experts, from Korea and China, respectively. First, Choe Won-gi is a professor and head of center for Southeast Asia and India studies at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. Wang Junsheng is the director and a professor of the department of China’s regional strategy at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Hwang: How would you evaluate the US-Korea summit held on May 21?

Choe: I think the new South Korean government and Biden’s government managed to closely coordinate their priorities and strategic directions on major issues such as North Korea policy, economic, technology and supply chain cooperation and their joint response to Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

In particular, the two allies seem to have achieved a strategic consensus on the need to expand Korea’s regional role and its coordination with the US in the Indo-Pacific.

I think the most notable and important outcome of this summit is the fact that the US and Korea have overcome the gap in strategic perceptions and priorities between the two countries, which have been disclosed during the previous Moon administration, especially when it comes to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and alliance coordination in Indo-Pacific regional affairs.

Wang: This summit has achieved the Yoon administration’s goals of further strengthening relations with the US, reinforcing cooperation with the US Indo-Pacific strategy and enhancing Yoon Suk-yeol’s own leadership image. The United States has gained even more.

The Biden administration has successfully incorporated the foreign policy of the Yoon administration into the broader framework of US foreign policy. In contrast, South Korea‘s diplomatic flexibility has reduced due to the damage of Sino-ROK (China-South Korea) relations, but the Biden administration has further increased its leverage in the strategic suppression of China.

Hwang: Please share your perspectives on the evaluation of the four leaders’ Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24.

Choe: The most notable achievements of the Quad summit are, first, that they managed to dispel some perceptions of a crack among the Quad member states stemming from India’s neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and second, that they reaffirmed the bond and strengthened internal solidarity among themselves.

India is often said to be the “weakest link” of the Quad, but the successful conclusion of the Tokyo Quad summit shows that India’s Quad strategy is a subset of its China strategy, and that the strongest glue that solidifies the unity among Quad countries is their shared strategic perception of China. As long as India feels serious security threats from China’s assertive expansion as it does right now, India will never be the weakest link, but the most important strategic member of the Quad.

Given China’s assertive behavior and attempts to change the status quo by force in many parts of the Indo-Pacific, India’s threat perception of China won’t change but will only grow even stronger, and the Quad is likely to be able to maintain its strategic focus and internal solidarity, and also to expand areas of cooperation among its members.

Wang: This summit was the second time that the Quad leaders met face-to-face. The summit adopted a joint statement covering a wide range of regional and global issues such as the North Korean nuclear issue and the response to the pandemic, which increased the institutionalization of the Quad.

But at the same time, due to the different interests of the US, Japan, India and Australia, the summit has achieved less substantive results and more general discussions. The fact that China was not mentioned at the summit shows that the four countries also have different views on jointly putting pressure on China.

Hwang: What could be the reasons, achievements and limitations of President Biden‘s trip to Asia?

Choe: I think Biden’s Asia tour this time is part of his efforts to put his Indo-Pacific Strategy into practice, and mobilize support from allies and partners in this part of the world.

If you look at what the Biden administration has been doing for the last couple of weeks, I mean, US-ASEAN summit, the ROK-US summit, the Quad summit, the official launch of the IPEF with a total of 13 members, including seven ASEAN countries, and Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken’s announcement on the Biden administration’s China strategy, you can see what Biden is aiming for. I think the Biden administration was quite successful in maintaining and even strengthening internal cohesion among the Quad members in spite of the apparent discord with India regarding the Ukraine war as well as the change of Australian government from the Liberal Party to the Labor Party.

While the main reason Biden traveled to Asia was the third Quad summit held in Japan, his stop in Seoul and meeting with the newly inaugurated President Yoon of ROK was no less significant. Given the fact that the previous Moon administration quite broke away from Indo-Pacific coordination with the US even though ROK is the “linchpin” ally to the US, it is quite an achievement for Biden that the new conservative government in Seoul pledged to put priority in strengthening ties with the US not only at the bilateral level, but also with regard to regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific.

Wang: Biden’s visit to East Asia obviously pays more attention to the economic vitality and strategic importance of this region. It can be argued that Biden‘s visit has achieved its purpose, which is to incorporate the foreign policies of South Korea’s new government and the Japanese government into the framework of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, and at the same time launched the IPEF and held the Quad summit.

Of course, for the Biden administration, isolating China will not help address America’s difficulties and global issues, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.

Hwang: President Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to come up with a Korean version of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. What do you expect the new Korean government‘s further diplomacy would be like?

Wang: The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is still being formulated, but such a policy is obviously not a regional strategy, but a global strategy.

Considering that South Korea‘s economy has entered the top 10 in the world and it has become a developed country, the Yoon administration’s new strategy will further amplify its expectation to become a “global pivotal state” and exert global influence.

Choe: President Yoon Suk-yeol is very critical of the former Moon administration’s “balanced diplomacy” that endeavored to strike a balance between the US and China.

The basic stance that the Yoon government pursues is to set the US-ROK alliance as the axis of Korea’s foreign policy and to strengthen cooperation with the US bilaterally, regionally as well as at the global level. He has pledged to seek for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” through cooperation with the US and also stressed ROK’s responsibility that is commensurate with its international status as the 10th largest economy in his recent interview with VOA (Voice of America).

At the Yoon-Biden Summit, President Yoon announced that he would formulate ROK’s own Indo-Pacific strategy as its comprehensive regional strategy. However, it is quite uncertain to what extent and at what level President Yoon will turn his pledges and commitments into actual policies and actions, especially with regard to Indo-Pacific cooperation with the US, Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation and cooperation with the Quad in the days ahead.

For example, Yoon repeatedly made pledges to uphold the fundamental values of freedom, democracy and human rights in his foreign policy approaches, but it is highly likely that he would confront many challenges as well as constraints in pursuing his “value diplomacy.” I think, for the time being, Yoon’s administration is expected to focus mostly on economic and functional areas, such as the Quad working groups, in his engagement with the US and other like-minded partners.

Hwang: What do you think are the similarities and differences between the previous Moon administration‘s New Southern Policy and the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy?

Choe: Given his publicly stated positions and strategic orientations, just like Moon did, the Yoon administration is also likely to put priority on strengthening ties with ASEAN countries and India.

However, it looks like Yoon will be more active in regional security affairs and also try to expand ROK’s regional role in the Indo-Pacific region. In managing relations with China, Yoon is expected to take a clearer stance on bilateral as well as regional issues compared to Moon who took an approach of “strategic ambiguity.”

For instance, the Yoon administration is more likely to make a clearer voice when it comes to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, especially the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, etc.

Wang: The New Southern Policy of the Moon administration is a regional strategy, mainly promoting cooperation with Southeast Asia. The Indo-Pacific strategy of the Yoon administration, on the other hand, is a global strategy. Moon Jae-in has been committed to promoting the cooperation of the New Southern Policy with the US Indo-Pacific strategy, while the Yoon administration directly launched its own Indo-Pacific strategy, which is likely to be highly similar and overlapping with the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

Hwang: Despite South Korea‘s expression of willingness to participate in the Quad, the US implied its intention to maintain the current system. Do you see there still being a possibility of scaling to Quad-plus?

Wang: There are many reasons why the United States does not want South Korea to join the Quad for the time being. The most important one is that the mechanism is just running and not mature.

The US is well experienced in building mechanisms and is well aware that expanding the mechanism at this point of time will not necessarily help its development. The US needs to take into account the bumpy Japan-South Korea relations and how the US will coordinate with Japan once South Korea joins in.

However, considering that the US purpose of constructing the Quad is to serve in the great power competition, and the importance of South Korea in the achievement of US strategic goals, it is only a matter of time for South Korea to be accepted as a Quad member.

Choe: The US does not seem to be interested in expanding the Quad beyond the current four countries for the time being.

I think the Biden administration is more interested in strengthening solidarity among the four Quad states rather than expanding the Quad’s membership. Of course, they will promote cooperation with countries other than the current Quad members through working groups in such areas as climate change, advanced technologies and vaccine supplies, etc.

In this regard, you can say that ROK would be the most important potential “partner for Quad.” On the part of ROK, Seoul will not seek Quad membership, but strengthen its cooperation with Quad states without membership.

Hwang: What are the outlooks of the Indo-Pacific strategy that you see?

Wang: After the Obama administration, the Trump administration and the current Biden administration, the US Indo-Pacific strategic goal has become more and more clear, which is to maintain US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, and that Quad and IPEF are fundamentally aimed at this.

The US Indo-Pacific strategy is not conducive to the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, as it is committed to shaping a divided and confrontational environment, which is contrary to the development of the Asia-Pacific region.

Choe: In addition to the Quad and IPEF, it looks like the US is making efforts to establish multiple mechanisms in support of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Besides the Quad and IPEF, you have a host of diverse minilateral arrangements, i.e., AUKUS (Australia-UK-US), Korea-US-Japan cooperation, NATO, as well as bilateral partnership with some key countries in ASEAN, such as Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.

It seems the US is working very hard to organize an Indo-Pacific cooperation network based on various issue-based coalitions as well as a number of bilateral partnerships with regional countries. As Blinken recently stated in his China strategy speech, the Biden administration is now focusing on “shaping the strategic environment that China operates in” rather than “engaging China itself.”

However, we never know how much this Indo-Pacific strategy is going to achieve its intended goals. For example, to date the US is not so successful in mobilizing support for its Indo-Pacific strategy among ASEAN countries. In addition to the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea in particular, where China has been aggressively expanding its maritime foothold in key areas, the US is not in a position to garner much support from South Asia except for India.

Also, as seen from the recent China-Solomons Security Pact, China is now making inroads into the West Pacific, where the US has traditionally maintained a military primacy.

Hwang: Do you assess that the Indo-Pacific strategy has its purpose in containing China?

Wang: This is obvious. All these mechanisms of the United States are closed in nature, because the US sees China as a specific adversary.

When the US considers China as a strategic competitor and is committed to suppressing China’s surrounding areas, the purpose of the United States to build relevant mechanisms to pressure and contain China is obvious. This is also in line with the institutional hegemony built by the United States after World War II.

Choe: In the early days of the Biden administration, you seemed to have two different schools of thought within the administration regarding its strategy against China. The first one is that the US should pressure China to bring behavioral change in its revisionist and expansionist moves; and the other one is that since the US cannot change China’s external behaviors, it should keep on pressuring to eventually weaken China’s power.

I understand some internal debates were going on, but based on what I got from Blinken’s China strategy speech a couple of days ago, I think the Biden administration has now completely abandoned its approach of “putting pressure to change China’s behavior” and moved on to the latter approach.

Hwang: From your point of view, does the Ukraine crisis strengthen or weaken the Indo-Pacific strategy?

Choe: It is true that the US was distracted a bit by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there are some concerns that the US’ attention to and focus on Indo-Pacific strategy might have been weakened, as India is remaining still neutral, unlike other Western countries.

Nevertheless, I think the core of the US’ foreign policy is still the Indo-Pacific strategy. There are absolutely no disagreements on this among the US, India, or European countries for that matter.

In short, I don’t think the Ukrainian war is a significant enough factor that would dilute Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Wang: After the outbreak of the Ukraine war, the United States had to invest some resources, but it did not weaken the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

From the perspective of the United States, it has always believed that China and Russia are two competitors, investing resources to contain both countries at the same time. But it is worth noting that the United States believes that China is a more serious competitor than Russia, which has not changed since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as evidenced by Biden‘s recent visit to East Asia.

Hwang: Thirteen countries in total decided to participate in the launch of the IPEF. What could be the reason that such a number of countries are joining, although specific directions and contents have not been settled yet?

Wang: There are 13 countries that have joined the IPEF of the United States, and most of them maintain close economic and trade relations with China. It’s worth pointing out that the goals of these 13 countries and the United States are likely to be different.

By joining the IPEF, most countries hope to develop their economies through regional cooperation and achieve stable supply chains and industrial chains, while the United States uses them as a tool for great power competition.

Therefore, these 13 countries that join the IPEF should avoid becoming a tool of the US foreign strategy while trying to achieve their own economic development goals.

Choe: A total of 13 countries joined the IPEF. All of the ten ASEAN countries participated except Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, which are under China’s strong grip.

The main reason why ASEAN countries joined the IPEF can be understood in terms of their hedging strategy.

For example, Singapore has expressed its support for China’s bid for CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) membership while participating in the IPEF, and also has supported the GDI (Global Development Initiative) that President Xi Jinping recently announced.

Also, ASEAN countries as well as ROK have nothing to lose by joining the IPEF because it is an “empty shell” at the moment. The stated goal of the IPEF is to “set new standards” in such areas as the digital economy, climate change and anti-corruption, etc., but nobody knows exactly what will become of the IPEF since it lacks any substance or clear operational directions.

Moreover, the IPEF is not going to be a binding agreement like any trade agreement. In short, contrary to China’s strong objection to the IPEF and its official position that it is another new arrangement that the US devised in order to contain China, it is quite uncertain whether or not the IPEF is going to develop into a substantive mechanism to play such a role in the coming future.


Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.