TOKYO – On his fifth and final day in Asia, President Joe Biden has expressed surprise that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has joined other leaders in Japan just a day after he was sworn in.
“If you sleep while you’re here, that’s fine,” Biden joked to Albanese. “Because I don’t know how to do it.”
Biden, who has traveled to 57 countries in eight years as vice president, used to talk about the energy and “passion” he has gained from such trips. But his first trip to Asia since becoming president has seemed daunting at times.
A joke he made at a state dinner about William Butler Yeats and the confrontation between the Irish and the British took place, attracting cockroaches from his Korean hosts.
While visiting a Samsung factory, he accidentally addressed South Korean President Yoon Seok Yeol with the nickname of his predecessor, Moon Jae In.
His major economic announcement in Tokyo on Monday, a loose initiative to unite mostly Asian nations, was overshadowed by his unwritten remarks that seemed to change US policy toward Taiwan and alarm China.
Biden, 79, isn’t the only one suffering from fatigue here. Many of his employees and reporters covering him fell victim to 13-hour travel fatigue.
But Biden is the one in the spotlight, and there’s no reason he was able to use the trip to South Korea and Japan as a reprieve from his political woes at home or, as his staff hoped, to project his domestic agenda on the world stage.
Richard N. said: But these consultations were still useful with the Allies.
Haas and other experts agreed that Biden’s simple appearance in the region was a reminder to allies and China that the United States remains a player here, despite the administration’s continued interest in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The administration sees China, which has slowed its economy to combat the coronavirus, weak and hopes to fill some voids.
There is a new realism due to the background of the war in Europe. And after the Trump years, it (the trip) has reinforced the sense of a primary foreign policy for the alliance, which is important and welcome.”
Haas added that the lack of detail crystallizing a new Indo-Pacific trading framework left what would have been a landmark foreign policy breakthrough incomplete: “The trip did not solve the problem that the US presence in Asia still lacked a serious economic component. .”
The COVID-19 pandemic and focus on the war in Ukraine severely restricted Biden’s travel. He’s only been to six other countries in his first 16 months on the job, although next month he’s set to travel to Europe and possibly the Middle East. Biden, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long considered travel an essential part of governing.
And there were successes on this journey. Japan reaffirmed its commitment to increase its military spending as part of its deterrence strategy against North Korea. Biden appeared to be on the same line with Yun in his hard-line stance against North Korea, in concept agreeing to expand joint military exercises that had been curtailed under former President Donald Trump.
The Quartet, a group of powerful players designed to counter China and includes the United States, Australia, Japan and India, managed to strike a united front as they met in Tokyo despite tension over India’s refusal to condemn Russia. Biden, in a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, spoke forcefully against Russia’s “brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” even as Modi continues to avoid holding Russia responsible.
But the group’s joint statement included stronger language targeting China – explicitly stating that members “strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral measures that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the region” – than had previously been agreed.
However, some of the administration’s specific economic and security goals failed to advance. Merging Biden’s foreign policy agenda with his domestic political themes proved daunting.
“These trips are tough. They should generally be happy with that,” said Michael Green, a former National Security Council official who focused on Asia under President George W. Bush.
Biden’s biggest economic announcement for the region, a new “framework” with 12 other nations touching the Pacific and Indian Oceans, lacked details or firm commitments to back such promises as increasing trade and fighting government corruption.
Many of the countries that agreed to participate, including Japan, said they favored a more substantial trade agreement that would lower tariffs and open markets. But Biden, besieged by political opposition from both the left and the right, has ruled out such a deal.
Persuading dozens of countries to sign showed a broader regional consensus than some believe can be achieved, Green said, even if the path toward making the Indo-Pacific trade agreement a reality remains uncertain.
“The big question mark hanging over this administration, which will not go away, will these people take seriously about economic statecraft or will they cede space to China?” He said. But he continued, broader continuity among the leaders — Modi’s neutrality on Ukraine being the only glaring exception — made five days relatively smoothly abroad.
Green said of Yun, Kishida and the Albanese, whose positions on democracy and trade, North Korea and Ukraine, aligned with Biden. “These leaders were determined to make Joe Biden look good and America look strong.”
The trip did not generate the kind of news coverage back home that would improve Biden’s currently low standing with the public.
For example, there was little assurance that Biden’s other economic announcement — Hyundai’s $5.5 billion electric car plant in Georgia — would fulfill his administration’s political promise to boost union jobs. Georgia is the so-called right to work mandate and most companies that build there see the ability to hire non-union workers as an added advantage.
While Biden and Yun appeared united in confronting North Korea, Biden made no progress on reducing Kim Jong Un’s advanced nuclear weapons program, acknowledging that Kim rejected the administration’s offers to negotiate.
When asked by a reporter if he had a message for Kim, Biden simply replied, “Hi. Period.”
Biden took a bolder tone when asked if America would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if necessary.
On Monday, Biden responded with a “yes.” “This is the commitment we made.”
The comments, at a press conference, left his advisers visibly surprised and sent them rushing to issue an explanation.
Susan A. Thornton, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, played down the statements and the resulting coverage as a “manufactured board,” and said Biden left Asia after he had accomplished what he set out to do.
“This is my media ‘gotcha’ more than anything else,” she said. “Yes, we will help the Taiwanese military, if they need it. No, we won’t say exactly what that means for a hypothetical situation. We insist that it remains a theory.”
While Biden has said he has not changed US policy, observers, including the Chinese government, have seen this as a shift that could put US forces on the ground. US policy on Taiwan calls for providing the island’s resources to defend itself against China, not direct US military intervention.
The statement topped the 24-hour global news cycle. Intentionally or unintentionally, it has overshadowed nearly every aspect of Biden’s journey.