Joe Biden set for first Asia trip as North Korea nuclear fears loom

No 'tension' between European and Asian demands, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan says

US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One as he travels to South Korea and Japan on his first trip to Asia as president. AFP
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President Joe Biden leaves on Thursday for South Korea and Japan to cement US leadership in Asia at a time when the White House's attention has been pulled to Russia and Europe — and as fears of North Korean nuclear tests overshadow the trip.

The visits are being touted as proof that the US is building on recent moves to cement its pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting decades of US dominance.

But highlighting competing demands from two sides of the world, Mr Biden met the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to celebrate their applications to join Nato right before will board Air Force One for Seoul.

Mr Biden is headed to South Korea and then Japan on Sunday to hold summits with the leaders of both countries as well as to participate in a meeting of the Quad — a group comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US — while in Tokyo.

During the first leg of his visit, he will visit US and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified frontier known as the demilitarised zone, or the DMZ, which sits between South and North Korea, the White House said.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan insisted there was no “tension” between the European and Asian issues, calling them “mutually reinforcing”.

“There's something quite evocative about going from meeting with the president of Finland and the prime minister of Sweden to reinforce the momentum behind the Nato alliance and the free world's response to Ukraine, then getting on a plane and flying out to the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Sullivan said.

Briefing reporters on Wednesday, Mr Sullivan said Mr Biden is bound for Asia with “the wind at [his] back” after successful US leadership in the western response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's almost three-month-long invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China to absorb.

This month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing is watching the Russia-Ukraine war “carefully”.

“I think they've been struck by the way in which particularly the transatlantic alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression,” he said.

Mr Sullivan said the administration wants not so much to confront China on the trip as to use Mr Biden's diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.

He pointed to co-operation from South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the US. He also referred to Britain's role in the recently created security partnership Aukus.

This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing”, Mr Sullivan said, “but it's not a negative message and it's not targeted at any one country”.

Officials say North Korea's nuclear weapons programme is a wild card on the trip.

Mr Sullivan said it was possible that North Korea, which has defied UN sanctions in conducting an array of nuclear-capable missile tests this year, could use Mr Biden's visit to stage “provocations”.

This could mean “further missile tests, long-range missile tests or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on or after the president's trip to the region”, he said.

The Biden administration is prepared to “make both short and longer-term adjustments to our military posture” in response.

The situation was being “closely” co-ordinated with South Korea and Japan, Mr Sullivan said, he added that he had also spoken about the issue with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday.

Updated: May 20, 2022, 7:08 AM