U.S. President Joe Biden will make his first visit to Asia from May 20-24, with visits to South Korea and Japan, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki announced in a statement on Wednesday. “This trip will advance the Biden-Harris Administration’s rock-solid commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to U.S. treaty alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan,” Psaki said.
As U.S. allies, Japan or South Korea (or both) is typically the destination for a new U.S. president’s first trip to Asia. However, Biden’s initial visit to the region is somewhat delayed – President Barack Obama traveled to Tokyo in November 2009, within 10 months of being inaugurated. President Donald Trump also visited the region in November 2017 for a mega-tour linked to the ASEAN and APEC summits, including stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Pandemic-related travel restrictions played a role in preventing an earlier visit, of course, but Biden is still six months behind his predecessors in forging ties through an in-person visit to the United States’ Asian allies.
Biden has undertaken three overseas tours so far, all of them to destinations in Europe: one pegged to the G-7 summit hosted by the U.K. in June 2021; one to the G-20 summit in Italy in October 2021; and one to attend an extraordinary NATO summit and G-7 meeting in March, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His trip to South Korea and Japan is overdue to help counter perceptions that the U.S. is too busy in Europe at the moment to devote the necessary attention to Asia.
The trip will start in South Korea, where the highlight will be the first bilateral meeting between Biden and South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, who will be inaugurated on May 10. Yoon has emphasized strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance as the pillar of his foreign policy, so expectations will be high for the meeting.
Biden will especially want to carry on the momentum from his 2021 summit with President Moon Jae-in, which included an acknowledgement that “[t]he significance of the U.S.-ROK relationship extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula: it is grounded in our shared values and anchors our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region.” The Biden-Moon summit moved the alliance into new areas like supply chain management and cooperation on technologies with national security implications (most notably semiconductors).
Yoon, meanwhile, will be seeking a strong showing of U.S. support amid North Korea’s continued spate of missile tests. North Korea broke its record for most missile tests in a month in January 2022 and tested an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) in March, raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. With reports that Pyongyang is repairing its nuclear test site, concerns are high that North Korea will soon add a nuclear test to the mix. The May 21 summit will be the first chance for Biden and Yoon to showcase a united approach to North Korea – an area where Yoon is expected to differ sharply from his predecessor.
From South Korea, Biden will head to Japan for what will be the first bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who took office in October 2021. Biden and Kishida have met virtually and on the sidelines of multilateral meetings held in Brussels earlier this year, but this will be the first time for either to host the other. (Japan reportedly attempted to secure dates for Kishida to visit Washington in 2021, but domestic political priorities on both sides made the scheduling impossible.)
The Japan leg of Biden’s trip will also feature a summit bringing together the leaders of the four Quad countries: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. It’s the second such in-person summit, following a gathering hosted in Washington, D.C. in September 2021 (which was attended by Kishida’s predecessor, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide). The second summit is another step toward institutionalizing the gathering. Japan’s role as host this time opens an opportunity to invite other leaders to join and explore options for a “Quad Plus” expansion.
The Quad summit will be held on May 24, according to Japanese officials. That’s an awkward time for Australia, which is holding general elections on May 21. If the Labor Party succeeds in its bid to oust the Coalition government, Australia could find itself between prime ministers at the time of the summit, raising questions as to who, exactly, would represent Canberra at the meeting. The last time an Australian election resulted in a change of government, it took 11 days to swear in the new prime minister – from the polls on September 7, 2013 to the inauguration of Tony Abbott on September 18. (Elections also scuppered Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s attendance at the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.)
Aside from security issues, Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan will provide an opportunity to flesh out his administration’s economic agenda in the Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework remains vague and regional partner’s aren’t convinced of the benefits yet. South Korea and Japan, as strong U.S. allies, will provide a friendly stage for Biden to put some more flesh on the framework.
Psaki indicated that economic issues would be part of the conversation. “The leaders will discuss opportunities to deepen our vital security relationships, enhance economic ties, and expand our close cooperation to deliver practical results,” she said in the statement. But how much time will be spent on economic ties versus security issues is an open question – and one that will be closely watched by other regional partners hoping for increased engagement with the U.S. economy.
Some of those questions might be answered before Biden ever leaves the United States. The U.S. is hosting a Special Summit with ASEAN on May 12-13, which was rescheduled from its original date of March 28-29. Southeast Asia is central to the emerging trade structure in the Indo-Pacific: All 10 ASEAN members are part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), along with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, and six are also in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Southeast Asian leaders will likely be looking for more specifics on U.S. economic policy toward the Indo-Pacific during their summit with Biden.
After delays and scheduling issues, May will be a busy month for Biden’s Indo-Pacific engagement.