South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol takes an oath during his inauguration in front of the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2022. Jeon Heon-Kyun /Pool via REUTERS
Political novice sworn in as South Korea's new president
01:57 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

President Joe Biden departed Thursday on an alliance-boosting visit to Asia, a belated first trip to a region that remains central to his foreign policy goals even as his focus has been drawn away.

Biden’s stops in two staunch US allies – South Korea and Japan – are meant to bolster partnerships at a moment of global instability. While Biden and his team have spent much of their time and resources on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, provocations from North Korea have intensified and China continues to flex its economic and military might.

As he touches down in Seoul on Friday, the region’s tensions will be palpable. North Korea appears to be preparing for an underground nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile test around Biden’s visit, according to officials, even as it weathers a major outbreak of Covid-19. US intelligence assesses that North Korea may now be getting ready to fuel an intercontinental ballistic missile, one of the key final stages in preparing for a test launch, according to a US official familiar with the latest information.

It is against that backdrop that Biden will embark upon his most intensive efforts at engaging Asian allies since taking office. The White House says it’s prepared for all contingencies, including a test occurring while Biden is on the Korean peninsula.

In Seoul, he’ll meet the country’s newly elected president, Yoon Seok-youl, a first-time elective office holder who has signaled a desire to expand his country’s foreign policy beyond just a focus on North Korea.

And in Tokyo, Biden will meet for bilateral talks with the country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, before meeting with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in a gathering of the Quad partnership that’s been revitalized at his initiative.

Along the way, Biden is expected to reaffirm US support for its allies amid intensifying provocations from North Korea, while also seeking new areas of economic cooperation — particularly on advanced technologies affected by supply chain disruptions. And he is expected to unveil a new Indo-Pacific economic framework, though the plan has already been critiqued for lacking specifics.

Biden said at a White House reception this week that his trip was intended “to affirm the importance of our Indo-Pacific alliances” and “celebrate the indispensable partnerships” in the region, including through cultural ties.

The President is paying his first visit to Asia later in his presidency than he might have liked, according to officials, who say Covid restrictions and the pull of other crises made it difficult to schedule a trip. Biden is the third US president in a row to attempt a foreign policy refocus on Asia, though intervening events have often gotten in the way.

“Several administrations in succession in the United States have tried this effort to launch more fundamental efforts, policies, frameworks in Asia, East Asia, Indo-Pacific, and found themselves stymied, or misdirected, or directed towards other pursuits,” said Kurt Campbell, the senior director for Asia on Biden’s National Security Council, earlier this month. “And that has been something that I think all of us are deeply aware of in the formulation and execution of policy.”

War in Ukraine looms over Asia trip

After months of all-consuming attention on Russia’s war in Ukraine – a conflict that has summoned Cold War comparisons and revitalized alliances built last century – Biden’s debut visit to Asia is an opportunity to renew what he views as this century’s challenge: Confronting a rising China through a system of renewed economic and military partnerships.

“We think this trip is going to put on full display President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy and that it will show in living color that the United States can at once lead the world in responding to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and at the same time chart a course for effective, principled American leadership and engagement in a region that will define much of the future of the 21st century,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters a day ahead of Biden’s departure for Asia.

Sullivan discounted the suggestion that the President and his team were distracted from their Asia initiatives by the crisis in Ukraine.

“We actually don’t regard this as a tension between investing time, energy and attention in Europe and time, energy and attention in the Indo-Pacific. We regard this as mutually reinforcing,” he said, adding: “For us, there is a certain level of integration and a symbiosis in the strategy we are pursuing in Europe and the strategy we’re pursuing in the Indo-Pacific and President Biden’s unique capacity to actually stitch those two together, is, I think, going to be a hallmark of his foreign policy presidency.”

Even as Biden turns his attention to Asia, the crisis in Ukraine remains his administration’s dominant foreign policy focus. Before he departs Thursday, Biden will meet at the White House with the leaders of Finland and Sweden, who filed emergency applications this week to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A series of challenges await in Asia

The renewed standoff with Russia has obscured in some ways Biden’s principal foreign policy objective: To engage China in intense competition while avoiding outright conflict.

Administration officials have acknowledged that senior foreign policy leaders inside the administration, along with the President himself, have been preoccupied over the past months with maintaining a united Western front against Russia and providing Ukraine military and economic assistance.

Even as Russia’s war grinds on, however, tensions have been building elsewhere.

North Korea, which Biden identified as his greatest foreign policy challenge early in his presidency, resumed provocative weapons tests ahead of Yoon’s inauguration. The Biden administration has sought to restart diplomacy with Pyongyang but has received little response.

A possible fueling of a missile would mean that North Korea could conduct a test launch while Biden is in South Korea. Once a missile is fueled, launch usually comes quickly due to the risk of leaving a missile full of thousands of pounds of fuel on a launcher.

The latest satellite imagery shows a number of vehicles at the site, but no missile or launcher is yet visible. There are also some vehicles the US believes are no longer visible, suggesting that the North Koreans may have moved them into shelters so they are not visible to satellites passing overhead. The North Koreans are known to have an understanding of when satellites are passing overhead and engage in deception practices to avoid being seen, the official said.

Yoon, meanwhile, has vowed to harden South Korea’s line against the North after former President Moon Jane-in made attempts at cultivating diplomacy – including helping then-President Donald Trump arrange a series of summits with Kim.

During Trump’s final visit to Seoul as president, he made a detour to the demilitarized zone, where he shook hands with Kim and stepped over the line of demarcation into North Korea. Previous presidents have also paid visits to the highly fortified border area, but White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that a DMZ visit was not planned during Biden’s stop.

United West a warning to China

Despite the focus on Ukraine, officials say Biden remains intent on realigning US foreign policy toward the challenges of the next decades. That includes, most urgently, building the type of alliance structure in Asia that already exists among transatlantic allies and has formed a mostly united bulwark against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

US officials believe the strength of the coordinated sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine among US and European allies has come as something of a surprise – not only to Russian President Vladimir Putin but to his ally in Beijing, President Xi Jinping. Surprising, too, was the willingness of countries in Asia, including Japan, to join in sanctions and help ease Europe’s dependence on Russian energy by providing supplies of natural gas.

Biden and his team hope the response of the US alliance network to an unprovoked invasion of a country sends a message to Xi that the consequences of such an action in Asia could be similarly dire.

Yet there is not currently an Asian equivalent to NATO, which has provided critical structure to the Western response to Russia’s aggression. And China has been working hard over the past years to cultivate countries in the region as it flexes its regional power.

Biden has taken several steps to counter those moves – revitalizing the Quad grouping of Japan, Australia, India and the United States; sharing, for the first time, sensitive US nuclear-armed submarine technology with Australia; and last week hosting a summit of Southeast Asian leaders at the White House to discuss trade and security.

Yet it’s far from clear those steps have done much to contain China’s ambitions. And some analysts have pointed to parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears over the future of Taiwan – a self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as its own and has not ruled out taking by force.

“Even though the governments across the region, our allies, are stepping up on Ukraine and clearly articulating how impressive and important it is that the US is leading this global coalition, if you look at some opinion polls, like in Taiwan or if you look at editorials, there is nervousness … about whether the US can handle two major contingencies,” said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Can we handle, you know, Ukraine and if Taiwan were suddenly a crisis, handle that at the same time? Do we have the bandwidth? And that’s a subtext that has the administration a little bit worried,” Green said.

CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.