US President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan in the third decade of May was accompanied by a number of noteworthy events that deserve attention in terms of assessing the current stage of the “Great Game.”
Of these, the least significant, but most widely covered in the world media, was the US president’s (sort of) public “gaffe” about the Taiwan issue. In fact, the possibility (but not the necessity, which is important to stress) of US intervention in a hypothetical armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait is provided for in the US’s own Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed back in 1979.
In other words, Joe Biden’s anti-China rhetoric on the issue during the tour under discussion is more of a diagnosis of the current state of relations between the two world’s leading powers. However, even these “provocative” words have been subject to “softening” adjustments by those in the US state apparatus who are supposed to be dealing with them. In the line of their duty, so to speak. The reaction of the Chinese Foreign Ministry to these words was no less “customary ritual.”
In general, something significant could have happened already on the first part of Joe Biden’s tour, i.e. during his three-day visit to the Republic of Korea. But it did not and, as they say in the natural sciences, the absence of some (expected) result is no less important than its (failed) presence.
It seems that Washington should not expect anything particularly new in the foreign policy of the new president, Yoon Seok-yeol, who took office on May 10. The ROK is likely to continue to maneuver within the field of power created by the leading players in Northeast Asia, i.e. the PRC, Japan, the Russian Federation and the US itself. Seoul will not sacrifice the quite positive (especially in the trade and economic sphere) relations with Beijing by participating in some of Washington’s anti-China projects.
The need for Seoul to maintain positive relations with Beijing is also linked to the questionable prospects for resolving the long-standing problem of US policy in the Northeast Asian sub-region, which is caused by the almost confrontational state of relations between two US allies, namely Japan and the ROK. Any meaningful rapprochement between the two would undoubtedly be seen by Beijing as a challenge to national interests.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the newly elected president of the ROK, Yoon Seok-yeol, exchanged messages of wishes for the positive development of bilateral relations. But such positive words have been consistently uttered before over the years by every new leadership “coming on board” in Tokyo or Seoul.
The role ascribed to Joe Biden as a “mediator” in the (hypothetical) Japan-ROK relationship is unlikely to be feasible. The Joint Statement signed in Seoul mentions Japan only twice. Namely, when it speaks of the need for “trilateral cooperation for responding to the challenges” from both the DPRK and global economic issues.
In Tokyo, Joe Biden participated in several notable events and finally announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) initiative, which has been under discussion for six months. However, the question of what this initiative is all about has not become any clearer either. In contrast to the configurations already in place in the IPR, designed to gradually remove barriers to the flow of goods and services in inter-state trade. These are primarily the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which all 11 parties acceded to in March 2018, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed in November 2020 by 15 parties.
The CPTPP, moreover, was originated by Washington itself. But a year before the agreement establishing the union was signed, the US was withdrawn from it by the decision of the new president Donald Trump, who had just taken office, as this was “not in the national interest.” Nor is the US present in the RCEP. In other words, there is a paradoxical situation: the world’s number one power, which considers itself (rightly so) “an organic part of IPR,” does not participate in regional economic cooperation processes, in which the main geopolitical competitor, China, and the main regional ally, Japan, prevail.
The political background to the IPEF’s hasty initiative seems obvious. The signing of the CPTPP and RCEP, for example, was preceded by years of painstaking work by experts, resulting in multiple pages of carefully negotiated documents. As for the IPEF, there are general words about “the need to rebuild the supply chain of components.” The most remarkable thing about this planned process is that it is to bypass the PRC. It’s unlikely that anything good will come of it. So far, only a small proportion of IPR countries have shown a willingness to participate in IPEF activities.
The Quad configuration, which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia, is beginning to take shape. During Joe Biden’s visit to Tokyo, the fourth (and second in a direct meeting format) summit of the participating countries took place. According to the final Joint Statement, there has been an expansion and specification of the Quad’s areas of activity. So far, however, there are still no signs of the prospect of this configuration becoming a political and military alliance. The main obstacle to this is New Delhi’s continued neutral positioning in relation to issues and conflicts between the world’s leading players. Which, however, now include India itself.
The new Quad summit gave an occasion for a foreign policy show by Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who took office after the party coalition, which includes the Labor Party he leads, won the general election on May 21. It is too early to speak of any positive movement on a key foreign policy issue stemming from Australia’s relationship with the PRC, which appears to have “bottomed out” since it was formally established. Albanese’s pre-election rhetoric on this issue was not much different from what the previous Conservative government of Scott Morrison said (and more importantly did).
The appointment of Penny Wong as Australia’s foreign minister, whose father was a Malaysian Chinese, hardly means anything in this regard. Ms. Wong is a seasoned statesman whose political preferences include a set of now fashionable neoliberal “values.” This is demonstrated by her openly being gay, as well as her primary focus on climate issues.
It is worth noting, though, where exactly, following her appointment to a major position in the new Australian government, Wong signaled the particular importance of climate issues. It was announced on May 26 in the Republic of Fiji, i.e. in the territory of one of the 11 members of the Pacific Islands Forum, during its regular meeting. Penny Wong suggested that participants in this forum should fully rely on Australia as a “trustworthy guarantor of security.”
The last words are noteworthy because they signify the increasing concern of both Australia and the US about the PRC’s growing influence in the Pacific. An important indication of this trend was the signing by the PRC at the end of March of a framework security agreement with the Solomon Islands, a member state of the aforementioned Forum. This caused quite a stir in Washington and Canberra.
In an obvious response to the anti-Chinese political fuss in Washington that was the main thrust of Joe Biden’s tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi travelled to several Pacific island states at the same time. The first of these was the Solomon Islands. A Global Times article commenting on Wang Yi’s said trip is preceded by a remarkable photo.
In general, everything that accompanied Joe Biden’s last trip abroad turned out to be another significant contribution to the process of degradation of the US relations with its main geopolitical rival, the PRC.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.