U.S. President Joe Biden's trip to Hiroshima has revealed both strengths and shortcomings of his administration's Indo-Pacific policy, with subtle changes in its stance toward China detected if looked carefully.
As widely expected, the Group of Seven summit and a host of meetings held on the margins were filled with messages opposing China's military and economic actions disrupting the status quo.
It comes as no surprise that the bloc of the world's most powerful industrialized democracies put an emphasis on China, given that another big theme of the three-day summit through Sunday was Russia's war against Ukraine, representing a blatant disregard of the rules-based international order.
By the same token, it is little wonder that the Chinese government reacted sharply to the G-7 leaders' communique, using the same old rhetoric and accusing them of collaborating to "smear and attack" Beijing and "brazenly interfere" in its internal affairs.
Despite this renewed standoff, Biden, who has identified China as Washington's most consequential geopolitical challenge, offered a rather different picture of the current status shortly before leaving the western Japanese city.
"I think you're going to see that begin to thaw very shortly," said Biden, when asked about months of tension between Washington and Beijing at a press conference. He did not provide any reason for his view and left it at that.
Some officials involved in the G-7 meetings and foreign policy experts say that what is worthy of attention in the communique, as well as related comments made by the leaders in Hiroshima, is that their desire for engagement with China was on display more than ever.
"I think you will find the China language to be totally straightforward. It is not hostile or gratuitous. It is just direct and candid," Biden's top security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.
Sullivan said concerns articulated by the leaders are "well known to China. So there should be nothing about it from the point of view of, you know, a surprise."
Earlier this month, Sullivan and China's top diplomat Wang Yi had more than eight hours of what both governments called "candid, substantive and constructive" talks in Vienna, suggesting that nascent efforts to ease a diplomatic stalemate are under way.
With the slight change in tone and language from the Biden administration toward China, the much-used word among U.S. and Western diplomats these days is "de-risking," not decoupling, from the world's second-largest economy.
Biden is more than halfway into his four-year term and seeks to remain in the White House after the presidential election in 2024.
Since declaring "America is back" after he took office in January 2021, Biden has been talking about the U.S. strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific at nearly every opportunity.
While Biden still has to show that the phrase is more than a slogan, once the presidential race shapes up he is likely to have little time for diplomatic affairs.
Andrew Oros, a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College, said that the latest trip "illustrated the continued challenges the president faces in executing a robust vision for the region with so many domestic and other international challenges."
What would have been a weeklong overseas trip, intended to be so to say "America is here," was swayed by an impasse in negotiations with congressional leaders on the U.S. federal government's debt ceiling.
Just a day before leaving for Japan, Biden opted to cancel the latter half of the planned trip to focus in Washington on how to avert an unprecedented debt fault.
Biden would have been the first sitting U.S. president to visit Papua New Guinea, an island country rich in natural resources with a population of nearly 10 million in the South Pacific, where China is aggressively trying to increase its influence.
The final leg of the truncated trip was Sydney, where Biden was supposed to attend a summit with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan, the other members of the so-called Quad grouping. The last time a U.S. president visited Australia was 2011, when Barack Obama announced a "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia.
Because he had to scrap the prearranged stops in the two countries, Biden promised to hold a summit with leaders of Pacific island countries in the United States and host Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for a state visit to Washington both later this year.
"As with earlier administrations, a 'pivot' to Asia has not been achievable but rather remains aspirational," Oros said. But he noted that the Biden administration is showing more results in boosting ties with its allies and partners, including Japan and South Korea, and advancing "minilateral" groupings, such as the Quad, which managed to have a summit in Hiroshima instead.
Still, apparently because of recognizing that more needs to be done to augment U.S. presence in the region, Biden said confidently in his closing press conference, "The past few days have once more underscored how important America's global leadership is."
"A presumptuous thing for an American president to say, but I think you'll find, if you ask any of our colleagues, it's true," he said.
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