Analysis of President Biden’s visits to Japan and South Korea

The President of the United States, Joe Biden (Credits: U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 6
Author: Riccardo Rossi

On May 20th-24th, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden paid diplomatic visits to Japan and South Korea to confirm the geopolitical importance the United States attaches to the Asia-Pacific region.[1]

Considering recent geopolitical developments in Asia-Pacific and the strategic role that South Korea plays in the Korean Peninsula, this report aims to assess the geopolitical reasons for the Joe Biden administration’s trip to the Republic of Korea and Japan and then evaluate the reactions of the Sino-Russian partnership to the White House diplomatic action.

The United States strengthens its presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Despite the Ukraine conflict, Asia-Pacific is still Washington’s geopolitical priority. Indeed, Joe Biden’s U.S. Presidency stressed Asia-Pacific’s strategic role in Washington’s foreign policy by organising a summit with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington on May 12th-13th, 2022,[2] and then travelling to the Republic of Korea and Japan to on May 20th-24th, 2022.

With the diplomatic visit to South Korea, President Biden strengthened the bilateral dialogue with Yoon Suk Yeol, agreeing on the need to stabilise the peninsula through:

 «[…] the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and agree to further strengthen the airtight coordination to this end. The two Presidents share the view that the DPRK’s nuclear programme presents a grave threat not only to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula but also the rest of Asia and the world. Both leaders condemn the DPRK’s escalatory ballistic missile tests this year, including multiple launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as clear violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions […]».[3]

The shared vision between the two presidencies led to essential agreements in the economic-commercial and strategic-military spheres. In the first case, the Washington-Seoul understanding deepens the Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Korea,[4] aiming to strengthen the interaction between the markets of the two countries, which in the Office of the United State Trade Representative‘s report in 2020 is quantified at the 154.9 billion dollars. Of this business volume, a portion comes from U.S. and South Korean foreign direct investment (FDIs) in their respective economies. In 2019, U.S. FDIs in South Korea were about USD 39.1 billion, while South Korean multinationals in the U.S. market stood at 61.8 billion dollars, primarily directed in the wholesale trade and manufacturing sectors.[5]

Besides the strengthening of trade relations, the second aspect considered by Biden- Yoon Suk Yeol relates to the stabilisation of the peninsula and the defence of Seoul against a possible North Korean attack.[6] In this regard, in recent years, Washington has developed a tactical-strategic doctrine that combines support to Seoul in implementing the Defense Reform 2020 Plan and the enhancement of the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force bases located in South Korea.[7]

The U.S. State Department considered the Defense Reform 2020 Plan as a crucial element to improve the operability of its armed forces both for air-sea reconnaissance missions of the land and sea border separating the two Koreas and for power projection operations in support of Seoul in the event of war with Pyongyang.[8]

After his stay in South Korea, President Biden went to Japan to discuss with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida the role of Tokyo in the U.S. Pivot to Asia policy aimed at containing Beijing’s political-military assertiveness toward Taiwan and its straits. Also under discussion are the Chinese presence in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, the Miyako, Luzon and Malacca straits, which are obligatory passages for the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) crossing the China Sea.[9]

With this in mind, the Biden administration agreed with Fumio Kishida on Washington’s commitment to support Tokyo’s increased military spending and maintain its estimated 54,000 troops stationed at 85 bases in the Rising Sun.[10]

The United States considers the strategic enhancement of its bases in Japan an indispensable element to gain a tactical-operational advantage in the comforts of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation to oversee the Russian Pacific Fleet and control the geo-maritime space of the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Island and the Senkaku Archipelago.[11]

The Japanese-United States partnership over these areas considered two possible conflict scenarios: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a North Korean attack on Seoul. In the first case, both Presidencies agreed on the need for an immediate military response against Beijing by deploying the air-naval assets of the PACOM command deployed between U.S. bases in the Rising Sun and the island of Guam.[12]

In the case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Washington and Tokyo plan to use their respective military bases for power projection missions against the military installations of the Russian Army and The People’s Liberation Army and the imposition of a sea denial near the narrows, preventing Beijing from exercising air-naval control of the Taiwan Straits, and Korea. [13]

President Biden’s diplomatic trip to the Republic of Korea and Japan raised concerns for the geopolitical stability of the Asia-Pacific region due to the Sino-Russian partnership which resulted in a combined air exercise in opposition to the U.S. diplomatic manoeuvre.

The Sino-Russian air mission, as reported in a statement by the Joint Staff Office (JSO) of Japan’s Defence Ministry, featured:

 «[…] two Chinese H-6 bombers flew from the East China Sea to the Sea of Japan, joining two Russian Tu-95 bombers there. The four aircraft flew together to the East China Sea. Two other Chinese H-6 bombers replaced the two flying in formation with the Russian planes. The formation then flew through the Miyako Strait into the Pacific Ocean and later returned the same way. The JSO also said a Russian IL-20 surveillance aircraft flew from morning until afternoon the same day over the Sea of Japan from Rebun Island in Hokkaido to Noto Peninsula, Honshu and that for all the flights Japan Air Self Defense Force fighter aircraft were scrambled to conduct surveillance».[14]

Through these military drills, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping confirmed their interest in the Korean Peninsula and the Miyako-Korean Straits.

For Beijing and Moscow, Korea represents a vital space due to the contiguity of territories to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Korea and Miyako Straits, on the other hand, are classified by the Kremlin and the PRC as obligatory passages for the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that interconnect their respective port networks to the most important maritime routes in the Asia-Pacific such as the North Sea Route (NSR) and the Malacca route.[15]

Conclusions

President Biden’s decision to visit South Korea and Japan confirmed Washington’s foreign policy aimed at containing Beijing’s economic-military rise in the China Sea and overseeing the Russian Federation’s military manoeuvres in the Sea of Japan and the Kuril Archipelago.

In this context, Biden considers indispensable to deepen its political-strategic relations with Seoul and Tokyo because they are essential to stabilising the Korean peninsula, controlling Russian Pacific Fleet operations, and imposing its own sea control near areas claimed by Beijing.[16] The United States seeks to implement this project to increase the tactical-strategic importance of South Korea and Japan and their respective contribution against the Kim-Jong-Un regime’s nuclear policy, Russian air-sea manoeuvres and the PRC’s military presence in the East China Sea, especially near the island of Taiwan. On the other hand, Moscow and Beijing interpret the U.S. strategy as a threat in the Asia-Pacific region which can destabilise the area, especially in the East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the La Perouse Straits, Korea and Taiwan.

In conclusion, it is possible to say that an already ongoing process of militarisation of the Asia-Pacific region will be reinforced in the coming years, with a rise in tensions in the area.

Sources

[1] Schiavenza. M (2015) What Exactly Does It Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia? And will it last?, The Atlantic

[2] Riccardo Rossi (2022) Joe Biden-ASEAN summit: a U.S. soft power action?, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598, Vol. 19(14), SpecialEurasia. Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/05/23/united-states-asean-biden/

[3]The White House, United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/21/united-states-republic-of-korea-leaders-joint-statement/

[4] The Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Korea entered into force in 2012. The treaty allowed a reduction in trade in goods exports between the US and Republic of Korea markets. For more details see: https://www.trade.gov/us-korea-free-trade-agreement 

[5] Office of the United State Trade Representative. Retrieved from: https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/japan-korea-apec/korea#:~:text=U.S.%20foreign%20direct%20investment%20(FDI,%2C%20up%209.2%25%20from%202018.

[6] Riccardo Rossi (2022) North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submarine, SpecialEurasia. Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/05/09/north-korea-missile-asia-pacific/

[7] Ibid

[8]Riccardo Rossi (2021), Geostrategy and military competition in the Korean Peninsula, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Vol. 12(10), Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2021/10/22/competition-korean-peninsula/

[9] Riccardo Rossi (2022) Japan in the U.S. Pivot to Asia Policy, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598, Vol 17(1). Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/01/japan-united-states-asia/

[10] Congressional Research Service (2019), The U.S.-Japan Alliance, p.1. Link: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/RL33740.pdf.

[11] Riccardo Rossi (2022) Russian-Japanese relations and the Sea of Japan, Geopolitical Report, 2785-2598, Vol. 17(5), Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2022/03/21/russia-japan-geopolitics/

[12] Riccardo Rossi (2021) The geostrategic importance of the Island of Guam in the U.S. policy of containment of Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598, Vol. 14(1). Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2021/12/01/geopolitics-guam-united-states/

[13] Kearn. D (2014) Air-Sea Battle and China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge, St. John’s University

[14]Mahadzir. D (2022) Chinese, Russian Bombers Hold Joint Exercises Near Japan, Korea, USNI. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2022/05/25/chinese-russian-bombers-hold-joint-exercises-near-japan-korea

[15] Riccardo Rossi (2022) Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea: a geostrategic necessity?, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598, Vol. 13(7). Retrieved from: https://www.specialeurasia.com/it/2021/11/16/militarisation-south-china-sea/

[16] Oelrich. B (2016) Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia.