U.S. President Joe Biden left Thursday for South Korea and Japan to cement U.S. leadership in Asia at a time when the White House’s attention has been pulled back to Russia and Europe — and amid fears of a North Korean nuclear test during his trip.
Biden wants the trip to build on recent moves accelerating a years-long U.S. pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting Washington’s dominance.
But highlighting the competing demands from Europe, Biden met right before his departure with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to celebrate their applications for joining NATO — a seismic development sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Also overshadowing Biden’s first Asia trip as president is fear that the unpredictable leadership in North Korea will choose the moment to grab attention with a test of its nuclear capable missiles or even a test explosion.
Despite a spiralling COVID outbreak, Pyongyang’s “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
U.S. intelligence also says there is a “genuine possibility” that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could stage this “provocation” after Biden arrives in Seoul late Friday, a senior U.S. official said.
Biden will head to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will hold talks with the leaders of both countries, as well as joining a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — while in Tokyo.
During the first leg, he will visit U.S. and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified frontier known as the DMZ between South and North Korea, the White House said.
Hours ahead of Biden arriving, South Korea’s newly elected, strongly pro-U.S. President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a warm welcome, tweeting “A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it. I am confident the ROK-U.S. alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future.”
Briefing reporters on Wednesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Biden is bound for Asia with “the wind at our back” after successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s now almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to gain control over democratic-ruled Taiwan, even if that means going to war.
Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing is watching “carefully.”
“I think they’ve been struck by the way in which particularly the transatlantic alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression,” he said.
Sullivan said the administration wants not so much to confront China on the trip as to use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.
He pointed to cooperation from South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the United States. He also referred to Britain’s role in the recently created security partnership AUKUS.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it’s not a negative message and it’s not targeted at any one country.”
Officials say North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a wild card on the trip.
Sullivan said it was possible that North Korea, which has defied U.N. sanctions in conducting an array of nuclear-capable missile tests this year, could use Biden’s visit to saber rattle.
This could mean “further missile tests, long-range missile tests or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on or after the president’s trip,” he said.
The Biden administration is prepared to “make both short and longer-term adjustments to our military posture” in response.
Sullivan said the situation was being “closely” coordinated with South Korea and Japan and that he had also spoken about the issue with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday.
© 2022 AFP