U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday embarked on his first trip to Asia since taking office to deepen security and economic ties with Japan and South Korea, while committing to a "free and open Indo-Pacific" amid China's growing assertiveness and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
One of the highlights of the five-day visit will be the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which the Biden administration has proposed as a key vehicle for U.S. engagement in a region expected to drive global growth for years to come.
"America's alliances in Europe and in Asia keep us and, I would argue, the world strong and secure. They are how we confront the challenges of our time and deliver for our people today and harness opportunities for a better tomorrow," Biden said at the White House.
In the hours leading up to his departure, Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to show support for the Nordic countries' historic moves to apply to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the wake of Russia's aggression.
The Biden administration is seeking to show that the United States can deal with the Ukraine war without taking its eyes off the challenges posed by China. But its efforts could be further complicated by another threat coming from North Korea, as speculation is rife that Pyongyang may conduct a long-range missile or nuclear test during or around the trip.
Biden's first stop is South Korea, where a top priority is likely to be addressing North Korea's threats and showing U.S. defense commitment to its treaty ally, including through nuclear deterrence.
On Saturday, Biden will hold talks with President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was sworn in on May 10 as South Korea's first conservative president in five years. It will be the earliest-ever bilateral summit meeting with an American counterpart for a South Korean president.
Expectations are growing in the United States toward closer alignment between the two countries over North Korea issues due to Yoon's tough stance on Pyongyang, a major shift from his predecessor Moon Jae In, as well as over trilateral ties involving Japan.
Yoon, a former public prosecutor with no political experience before being elected president, has favored stronger ties with the United States and has called for a "future-oriented" relationship with Japan after years of strained ties with its Asian neighbor over wartime compensation and other issues.
Yoon has also expressed his desire to strengthen cooperation with the United States on global supply chains through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, also called the IPEF.
As competition with Beijing intensifies in various areas, the Biden administration has been stepping up efforts to build "resilient" supply chains for semiconductors, a crucial component in electric devices whose manufacturing capacity is largely concentrated in East Asia, including Taiwan and mainland China.
If Yoon announces Seoul's participation in the IPEF during his meeting with Biden, it could create important momentum for U.S. economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific, according to experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. South Korea is home to leading memory-chip makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and SK hynix Inc.
Biden will then travel to Japan for talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday to showcase their ever-closer ties as well as their cooperation in dealing with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has sent a dire warning on the need to prevent similar aggression from occurring in the Indo-Pacific.
In what would be Kishida's first in-person, sit-down bilateral summit with Biden, the two are expected to emphasize freedom, democracy and the rule of law, and stress that they will work with other countries sharing such universal values in facing autocracies such as China and Russia, according to Japanese government sources.
With the Ukraine crisis bringing renewed attention to Taiwan, another democracy pressured by a powerful neighbor, Kishida and Biden are expected to reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, according to the Japanese sources.
The two are also likely to agree to advance cooperation on research and production of semiconductors and increase engagement in new defense areas including in outer space and cyberspace.
Also on Monday, Biden will launch the "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity," the White House said. Japan is expected to announce its participation in the framework, which will address key areas of cooperation such as trade, supply-chain resilience and clean energy.
On Tuesday, Kishida and Biden will take part in a summit of the "Quad" group, which also involves Australia and India, as the four major Indo-Pacific democracies continue to cooperate to deliver public goods, such as coronavirus vaccines, under their commitment to advance a "free and open" region.
With India having historically close ties with Moscow, questions remain as to whether the four countries can come up with a strong message to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia's aggression.
The Biden administration has placed emphasis on the Quad, calling it a "premier" regional grouping in its Indo-Pacific strategy released in February. The Quad is widely seen as a counterweight against China's growing clout.
Since his inauguration in January 2021, Biden's overseas travel had consisted of three trips to Europe. He had no chance to travel to Asia, as annual regional meetings adopted a virtual format amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But he has continued to signal the importance of relationships with the long-standing U.S. allies in Asia, with Japanese and South Korean leaders becoming, respectively, the first and second foreign leaders to visit the White House for face-to-face meetings with Biden last year.