President Joe Biden’s May visit to Asia has been timely, especially in the wider context of international developments in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. China’s sustained military buildup requires a diplomatic and strategic response, and clearly this is a principal – though not the only – incentive for the trip.
The journey included Japan and South Korea, the two largest Asia economies outside of China. Both are close United States allies.
The Korean War of 1950-53 forged a powerful tie. South Korea’s evolution afterwards to political democracy and economic powerhouse is extraordinary.
Biden spent three of the five days of the trip in Korea, including a wreath laying May 21 at Seoul National Cemetery to honor Korean War dead. Talks with new President Yoon Suk-yeol followed.
On May 24, high-level talks took place in Tokyo among leaders of “The Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, reestablished in 2017 following unsuccessful earlier efforts. The Quad leaders who met in Japan: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Biden.
China accuses Quad nations of trying to replicate NATO. That analogy neglects the great distances and associated challenges of the Asia theater. NATO ties together largely contiguous nations of Europe, along with North America.
Along with geographic realities, important differences in histories characterize the Quad. Nonetheless, the enormous growth of China’s military, in particular the maritime dimension, provides a powerful incentive for this allied cooperation.
The Obama administration declared Asia a priority concern for defense policy. This reflects the threat from China, and more generally the expanding strategic importance of Asia.
Since the mid-1980s, the total volume of U.S. trade with Asia has been larger than with Europe. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, international relations have become more flexible – and unpredictable.
The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization is an ambitious initiative to provide policy coordination among the Pacific nations. APEC was conceived by Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke and embraced enthusiastically by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.
Australia, over the past several decades, has moved in the direction of free markets and a much more explicit national commitment to tolerance, directly reflected in official policy toward indigenous populations. The Obama administration decision to station a U.S. Marine contingent in Australia underscores the strong bilateral ties between the two nations, dating back to World War II.
The 2006 APEC summit was held in Vietnam. The gathering highlighted that nation’s economic growth, and commitment to multilateralism. As with China, economic realities forced ideological change.
Hanoi honored U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and our government with a parade, complete with American flags – an ironic as well as poignant gesture.
There are military security aspects to APEC summits, just as with the Quad. In the 2008 summit held in Peru, Americans and Russians discussed differences over Moscow’s invasion of Georgia, important background given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Pacific region generally lacks the complex established network of economic and military organizations defining Atlantic area relationships. For this reason especially, APEC and the Quad are significant.
For decades, Cold War division defined relationships among nations. Today, economic incentives and related self-interest undermine ideological hostilities.
This unfolding reality may or may not change China’s strategy. Therefore, Biden’s blunt declaration of commitment to Taiwan is justified.
Beijing is on notice. Asia-Pacific democracies are strong, and united.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.