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As Ukraine war rages, Biden team revives Asia focus

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US President Joe Biden, speaking at a metal plant in Hamilton, Ohio, has pointed to the rise of China as he presses for spending in US infrastructure./AFP
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May 09, 2022 - 11:48 AM

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was clear from the moment he entered office — China is the main international competitor and should be the top concern for US foreign policy. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

After months devoted to supporting Ukraine and punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden is shifting focus, at least temporarily, back to Asia, a sign that the ongoing war will not drown out the administration’s other international goals.

Biden from Thursday meets leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a two-day summit, a sign of personal US engagement in a region full of disputes with a rising China.

A week later, Biden travels to Japan and South Korea, two treaty allies of the United States, and will hold a four-way summit in Tokyo with the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan — the “Quad” widely perceived as a counter to Beijing.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon deliver what is billed as a major speech on China, although it was recently pushed back after the top US diplomat tested positive for Covid.

At the ASEAN summit, “certainly the war in Ukraine will be a topic of discussion, but it’s also an opportunity to discuss security in the region,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

She said she also expected discussion on the pandemic and on North Korea — which may soon soar to the top of US priorities with Washington seeing signs of an imminent new nuclear test.

Yuki Tatsumi, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, said Biden was sending a message by going ahead with the Asia diplomacy.

“For the Biden administration, this is quite important for giving assurances to countries in the Indo-Pacific that, yes, we are doing things in Ukraine in the short term, but we are fundamentally committed to the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

Hard choices

With its rapid gains in technology, growing assertiveness at home and abroad and nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, China has loomed large for successive US administrations that have all seen the future in the Pacific — but each has faced the reality of troubles elsewhere.

Most famously, former president Barack Obama launched a “pivot to Asia” that included winding down commitments in the Middle East, although he sent troops back to Iraq after the rise of the Islamic State movement.

In 2014, after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, Obama angered Putin by dismissing Russia as a weak “regional power.”

Hal Brands, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said there was an “obvious tension” between the need to keep the focus on Asia and the rising priorities around the world.

“I don’t wake up in the middle of the night worried about living in a Russo-centered world because Russia doesn’t have that power and it’s certainly not going to have that power after this crisis,” he said.

“The administration is right to say that China is the only meaningful systemic competitor out there for the United States.

“But in the past year, we’ve seen that the United States still has really important interests in regions outside of Asia, and those interests can be imperilled more easily than we might expect.”

Tatsumi said that the administration could also seize on the example of the Ukraine crisis while in Asia.

The Biden team can show “commonality” by showing that the United States is standing up for firm principles such as territorial integrity and human rights, she said.

The United States has repeatedly warned China against changes in the status quo in Asia, particularly on Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

Blinken, testifying in April to Congress, said that China is sure to see the “massive costs on Russia for its aggression.”

“That would have to factor into its calculus about Taiwan going forward,” Blinken said.

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