Biden will find that America remains a trusted and popular ally in the region.
America’s 46th President has been hard at work during his Presidential transition. While the newly elected Joe Biden has had his hands full at home with the recent Capitol riots and still rampant COVID-19 outbreak, he has moved with alacrity on his East Asia policy. His appointments of Antony Blinken, a key figure in the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” as Secretary of State; and Kurt Campbell, veteran Japan watcher and widely respected former diplomat, as his point man on East Asian affairs; signalled that the new administration was taking its outreach to the region seriously. However, despite these moves, the President and his team will have their task cut out for them.
To begin with, the United States-led security architecture in the region remains troubled. America’s major allies, Japan and South Korea, continue to be at loggerheads well over a year after a conflict over Japan’s imperial past and colonisation of Korea in the 20th century spiralled into a trade war. The trade war also affected the strategic relationship between the two countries when South Korea temporarily suspended participation in a critical military intelligence pact aimed at containing North Korea. Other casualties in the strategic relationship have included joint responses to Chinese provocation over the Takeshima islands, high level strategic exchanges among diplomats as well as joint military exercises.
Here, President Biden will be faced by both opportunities and challenges. In his first telephone conversation with President Moon of South Korea, new Japanese Prime Minister Suga made no bones about his belief that bilateral relations couldn’t continue as they had since 2018. Following this conversation, both sides have begun to tentatively reach out and rebuild bridges. Parliamentary delegations from Japan met informally with their counterparts in Seoul, an action that was reciprocated by South Korea. High level talks resumed between the foreign ministries of both nations while Korea’s intelligence chief visited Tokyo to meet with Suga and hash out the problems in the relationship. Further, Korea’s recent choice of Ambassador to Tokyo, a parliamentarian with extensive experience in dealing with Japan, has been considered a sign of Korea’s willingness to improve the state of the relationship. However, the picture is not entirely rosy as the elephant in the room, the issue of reparations for Japan’s atrocities in Korea during World War II, remains unaddressed. In his conversation with President Moon, Suga made clear that Japan would be unmoved by Korean pressure to pay reparations. Public opinion in both countries has also been incensed by the conflict between both countries and a settlement may be difficult to sell to domestic constituencies.
In the face of these challenges, the Biden administration does have options. Outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo did little to bridge the gap between US allies with his efforts being characterised as “too little, too late” by some in the strategic community. However, his successor Antony Blinken has significant experience in making America’s squabbling allies get along. Most significantly, Blinken, along with fellow Obama administration diplomat Kurt Campbell, played a crucial role in the 2015 agreement wherein Japan’s Shinzo Abe gave way after a lifetime of opposition to reparations for Korea’s “comfort women.” With Campbell and Blinken now returning to top diplomatic positions and both sides seemingly open to compromise, expectations will run high for a similar settlement, or at the very least, a defusal of tensions. Further, Biden’s team may aim to take advantage of the budding detente to push for a quick repair of defence and intelligence ties between both sides regardless of the outcome on negotiations on reparations.
The Biden administration is also likely to receive a warm welcome from Seoul. President Trump’s tenure in office saw fraught relations as the two allies clashed on a number of issues. At the top of Seoul’s list of grievances is the Trump administration’s demand that Korea radically increase its contribution to defence on the Korean Peninsula. The quantum of the demanded spending increase, nearly five times what South Korea pays currently, has raised the hackles of the Korean public with around 96 percent of citizens polled opposed to American demands. Biden’s promise not to “extort” Korea into paying more for US forces stationed in the country is likely to go down well.
Another key challenge will be managing Korea’s increasing desire for strategic autonomy as the conflict between China and the United States heats up. While Korea has made abundantly clear in recent years that the US is its preferred security partner, it remains vulnerable to China, which is its largest trading partner. For example, Korea’s 2016 decision to deploy the US-sponsored THAAD missile defence system despite Chinese objections led to the imposition of sweeping sanctions on all things Korean in China from cars to K-Pop concerts. With exports forming a crucial 40 percent of Korea’s GDP, China’s tactics proved that it has the leverage it needs to deal a heavy blow to Korea’s national interests and served as a warning of things to come. As such, Korea has proved unwilling to follow the Trump administration’s more aggressive policy on China for fear of invoking the latter’s displeasure.
Yet, Korea is not without options. In a 2019 article for Foreign Affairs, Jake Sullivan (Biden’s new National Security Advisor) and Kurt Campbell outlined their plan for dealing with China: “competition without catastrophe.” To these new head honchos of American foreign policy, competition with China is “a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.” As America is unlikely to regain military supremacy in the Pacific and Beijing is unlikely to remove the US military presence in the region, each side must learn to accept the other. On key regional flashpoints like the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the two argue that the maintenance of the status quo serves both US and Chinese interests. With this, Korea can breathe a little easier. If deterrence is likely to be the focus of the Biden administration, Korea can avoid being caught in the middle of aggressive military buildups and potential conflict. Further, Sullivan and Campbell believe that concepts like the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) should be marketed to countries as essential to protecting sovereignty and economic growth rather than as a counter to China. This toning down of rhetoric is likely to serve Korea well, given its previous reluctance to endorse FOIP and its military guarantors like the Quad because of its perceived anti-China connotations.
Finally, both men castigated the Trump administration’s predilection towards twisting arms, even those of allies, in order to corral support for its actions. From countering China’s presence in the world’s 5G networks to forcing it to accept intellectual property standards, Sullivan and Campbell argue that integrating allies in decision-making is essential to US policy. Now, with Sullivan as National Security Advisor and Campbell the top NSC coordinator for Asia, Korea can expect a US policy that is more collegial with allies and less confrontational with competitors. Already, the US State Department and Korean Foreign Ministry have discussed harmonising US policy in the Indo-Pacific with Korea’s New Southern Policy. While the threat of Chinese displeasure hangs over Korea like a Sword of Damocles, a Korea that cooperates with the US on intellectual property rights, cyber security and weapons proliferation is likely to be taken more seriously by China than a Korea that is cowed by coercive action from China.
Finally, there remains the all-important question of dealing with North Korea. President Moon Jae-In, now approaching the end of his tenure at the helm of South Korea, has long been in favour of increased engagement with the North. Already, he has called on Biden to pick up from where President Trump left off and work on a more concrete plan to achieve denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula. Trump invested much into his highly publicised bonhomie with Kim Jong-Un, with little to show for it despite several historic meetings between the two. For his part, Kim Jong-Un recently termed the United States his nation’s “biggest enemy” while still keeping the door open for negotiations. At the same time, North Korea announced its intention to continue its expansion of its nuclear arsenal.
Many analysts believe that, should Biden not come to the negotiating table with acceptable terms, North Korea may resume missile testing. As such, Biden has several options. He could return to the Obama doctrine of “strategic patience” with North Korea in the hope that the country will collapse under the weight of its dictatorial government and widespread poverty. This more traditional US focus on disarmament and denuclearisation will undoubtedly anger North Korea, which is also invested in removing crippling US sanctions. Biden may opt to follow Trump’s path and make some concessions as Trump did when he stopped large joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, much to Seoul’s surprise. However, as North Korea expert Duyoung Kim points out, other concessions like removing sanctions and abstaining from criticism on North Korea’s human rights record will likely be sticking points in future negotiations. With North Korea, Biden faces the same conundrum all presidents have: An enormously dangerous situation with few good options.
Despite significant hiccups during President Trump’s tenure, Biden will find that America remains a trusted and popular ally in the region. As he takes over on 20 January, Biden will look to fulfil his own campaign slogan and “build back better” in East Asia.
The author is a research intern at ORF.
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