CFR experts preview President Joe Biden’s May 20-24 trip to Asia, including bilateral meetings with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and a meeting of the Quad Summit with leaders from Japan, India, and Australia.
ROBBINS: Thanks so much and welcome. This is our briefing on President Biden’s upcoming trip to South Korea and Japan.
We’re very lucky to be joined today by three CFR experts on the region.
We have Manjari Chatterjee Miller, who’s a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council. She’s also a research associate in the contemporary South Asian Studies Program at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies at the University of Oxford.
Shelia Smith is the John Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council. And she’s an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy. And the author, and I’m just going to do one of the books, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power.
And my colleague Scott Snyder, also senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. And he’s the author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers. And he is in Seoul. So what time is it there? Who knows? What day is it there, right? (Laughs.)
So a few reminders. This conversation is on the record. We shared some background readings with you already, and there’s always a lot more resources on the CFR website. They actually pay me to say that. So our format today is that Manjari, Shelia, Scott, and I will do a first round of questions and some cross talk, and then we’re going to throw the discussion open for your questions. We’ll let you know how to do that, again, at the time, so that you can get in the queue. So let’s dive in right now.
So the pivot to Asia was beginning to feel like that mythical infrastructure week, but it’s finally happening. President Biden is going to the region. Is it a four-day visit or a five-day visit? I was trying to count it up this morning. He’s going to have some bilateral meetings with South Korea’s new president and with Japan’s prime minister. Two strongly pro-U.S. leaders. He’s going to do a virtual IPEF visit. We’re going to explain what that is. And the White House is suggesting that a half-dozen countries may sign onto this economic agreement that’s maybe not an agreement. I’m still not clear what they get with it. He’s going to hold a meeting of the Quad, maybe. And which has all sorts of dramatic potential, including who’s going to show up for the Australians since they have an election the day before what’s supposed to be that meeting. And whether the group is going to sidestep Indian Prime Minister Modi’s neutrality on the Ukraine invasion.
So, Scott, he’s going to Seoul first, so can we start with you? What’s Biden looking for there? How essential is North Korea going to be to this conversation? I mean, until now the White House has been pretty quiet while Kim tests missiles and seems to be getting ready for a nuclear test. Are we going to see the unveiling of a Biden North Korea policy? Or is it all about semiconductors?
SNYDER: Well, inevitably North Korea is going to make itself front and center as part of the agenda for a Biden-Yoon summit. If for no other reason than there’s anticipation in the intelligence community of either a possible ICBM launch or a possible nuclear test. And so just the fact that that speculation is out there makes it necessary for the two leaders to talk about extended deterrence, how that works, and to try to deepen their shared commitment to security and defense.
But you’re absolutely right that semiconductors is also a big part of the visit. Biden and Yoon are scheduled, I think, to visit a Samsung semiconductor plant on Biden’s first day here and supply chain resiliency is at the center of the Biden administration’s priorities, and Samsung and other South Korean semiconductor firms and electric battery firms are stepping up to align and integrate with the U.S. in a number of areas. And so that is an important area of convergence that is relatively new in the U.S.-South Korea relationship.
ROBBINS: So this is a new president for South Korea, who is a very different president. I mean, what’s Biden looking for on this visit and is—you know, the relation should be a somewhat different one, right?
SNYDER: It will be. I think it’s going to be a lot closer. All Biden really needs to do to prepare for meeting President Yoon for the first time is to read the inauguration speech that he gave eleven days ago where he talked a lot about the importance of freedom as a value, and also Yoon has made a campaign commitment to make South Korea a global pivotal state and that provides an enormous scope of potential opportunity for the U.S. and South Korea to address shared challenges in partnership with each other if, indeed, such a global pivotal state approach actually materializes as part of the Yoon foreign policy.
ROBBINS: So is this a get tough on North Korea visit? I mean, it’s—Biden—it wasn’t strategic patience, which meant, basically, nothing by the end of the Obama administration. I mean, and—but Biden hasn’t been willing to take the bait either with North Korea. Now, it seems like Yoon is a much harder line sort of guy. At the same time, North Korea is reaching out and seems to be saying please, please help me on COVID. So are we going to hear a tougher line or are we going to see, potentially, a reaching out to North Korea to help them on COVID, maybe an opening for new negotiations that way?
SNYDER: Well, I would actually argue that it is a reaffirm the alliance with a much broadened scope kind of visit and North Korea is one of the elements that both leaders have an interest and a need to deal with precisely for the reason that, in one form or another, we may see a crisis in North Korea that requires a response and that could relate to the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID in a completely unvaccinated population or it could relate to the steps that North Korea is taking to challenge South Korean and global security by extending its capacity to deliver nuclear weapons, potentially, anywhere in the world.
And so both of those items have to be dealt with effectively for Yoon from a domestic point of view and from a global point of view, and also for Biden it’s necessary to address that in some form if for no other reason than to serve as a placeholder for other more pressing priorities.
ROBBINS: So what are you going to be looking for and what are you going to be listening for in this discussion, particularly—I mean, for me, I’m most focused on North Korea. Maybe that’s the wrong thing to focus on. But what are you going to be listening for that’s going to give you a sense of whether there’s actually a new policy?
SNYDER: Well, it’s a first meeting, and I think that the framing is a lot broader, and with regards to North Korea it’s complicated because North Korea still has the ability to shape events that will require a response, and I think that the Biden administration actually is probably going to continue with an approach that is defined by diplomacy and strict deterrence, I think, was Biden’s original quote from the State of the Union in April of 2021, and I think that the Yoon administration is actually more aligned with the Biden administration’s approach. But the emphasis is definitely on the deterrence component rather than the diplomacy component compared to Yoon’s predecessor, Moon.
ROBBINS: Thanks. I’m sure there will be a lot more questions for you on that.
So, Sheila, if we can turn to you for a minute, which is—so Kishida and Biden, they know each other for quite a long time, right, and but this is a very different political and security environment with Tokyo much more willing to engage on national security issues. I mean, they really—even sending equipment to Ukraine. So what do these two leaders want from this meeting and what does Biden, in particular, want?
SMITH: Thank you, Carla. So I think if we go from the Biden administration, briefly, this is part of a plan, so to speak, that’s been in place over a year since the Biden administration came into office and so it’s the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and the Quad that has framed the Biden administration’s outreach last year.
But there’s also been, as Scott noted, a very firm effort to make sure that the U.S. allies in the region—South Korea and Japan—understand that the United States remains committed in extended deterrence. Nuclear—the nuclear umbrella is valid and reliable. And so I, too, expect that there will be a statement by the president reemphasizing Article 5 protections for Japan and also there may be a combined statement coming from both Prime Minister Kishida and the president on deterrence—combined deterrence—as well.
But, you know, three very, very quick Japanese goals for this meeting. One is, obviously, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine you’ve seen Japan be much, much more active, as you noted. They’ve not only given assistance to refugees fleeing Ukraine but they’ve also provided President Zelensky with military equipment—not weapons, not lethal aid, but things like helmets and flak jackets and things like that.
This is an unprecedented step for Japan to contribute in that way during a conflict. But you’ve also seen a massive public response—positive public response—for Prime Minister Kishida’s assertiveness on this issue and they have—he has very early on framed this as a challenge to the rule-based order, to the global order—not just a regional conflict in Europe but something that intimately affects the Indo-Pacific as well.
So I think we’re going to hear more about that. They, certainly, want to continue to coordinate with the president on what steps are coming next and how to ensure that this doesn’t affect the way the United States and Japan respond to a Taiwan crisis. So I think there’s going to be a lot of—we may see a lot of language on China. We may see—maybe not, but we may see some initiation of a conversation, a more serious conversation, on what the alliance might do to deter aggression against Taiwan.
And then, lastly, I think it’s important that this free and open Indo-Pacific vision that Japan rolled out under Prime Minister Abe but continued under Prime Minister Suga and now Prime Minister Kishida, this is very much attached to Japan’s very strong support for the Quad. I mean, as the host this round—this is the first time that a non-U.S. summit will be held—Japan is very, very interested in making sure this is a successful round. But we can talk more about that later.
ROBBINS: And, Scott, we didn’t talk about China at all. I mean, and is—Sheila, Japan has strong feelings, I assume, about North Korea since those missiles come awful close to them. You know, North Korean and China—South Korea and China—sorry, let me back up. South Korea and Japan are not the best of friends here.
How much convergence is there between these two leaders right now? They both like the United States an awful lot. Do they have shared goals for this Biden visit on questions like North Korea and China? Is this a—is Biden going to be trying to get this relationship closer or do they see themselves as basic competitors in this?
SMITH: Is that for Scott, Carla?
ROBBINS: Both of you.
SMITH: Scott, you go ahead first and I’ll follow.
SNYDER: OK. Well, there’s a lot in that. I think that, you know, President Yoon has just started to unfold his foreign policy framework, and in the campaign he posited both a comprehensive security alliance with the United States and a relationship with China built on mutual respect. And so that’s actually a positive sum relationship between the U.S. and China.
But it’s not at all clear that China is going to view it that way, and I think that what China may be viewing and may be concerned about is increased South Korean strategic alignment with the United States and, therefore, a greater parallelism and possible intersection with Japan, and, actually, I think that the Chinese have quietly been trying to send messages to South Korea about where it might be dangerous for Yoon to go in that respect and one of those specific areas has been related to Yoon’s campaign statements about the possibility of introducing a new Terminal High-Altitude Air (sic; Area) Defense missile battery in South Korea, which is exactly the precipitating factor behind China’s economic retaliation against South Korea back in 2017 that so soured the South Korean public attitudes toward China.
ROBBINS: So THAAD air defenses. OK.
And so, Sheila—so China and Japan see things differently here?
SMITH: China and Japan on the THAAD?
ROBBINS: Yeah. No, just more generally.
SMITH: Oh, of course. Yes.
ROBBINS: Yes. (Laughs.)
SMITH: No, I was just going to add on the trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea piece, of course, the Biden administration has quietly been working that channel since it came into office with defense chiefs meeting and national security advisors meeting and the summits back-to-back—Japan-Korea—last year.
So this will, obviously, be part of the conversation that the president has with his counterparts both in Seoul and in Tokyo. And, of course, there’s been some good lead up to this visit because President-elect Yoon before—even before inauguration was making some very positive comments that would open the door a little bit to diplomacy with Tokyo and sent a delegation.
So I think we’re all cautiously optimistic that a quiet but, perhaps, constructive improvement in the Japan-South Korea relationship could be in the future. It’s not so clear how far and how fast that will go.
On the China piece, Japan—you can go back to look at the summit last year, the first time that both the president and prime minister of Japan had a very overt identification of concern about China. There was a whole full paragraph about Chinese behavior that included everything from human rights to the military presence around the region and pressure on others in the region, as well as peaceful relations across the Taiwan Strait.
So, absolutely, Japan is concerned about Chinese behavior, about the Chinese military buildup and, more importantly, the use of that military, and the pressure on Taiwan has been the focal point of bilateral talks up until—all the way through the beginning of this year. I expect that there will be a statement. What it’s going to say I don’t know. You might see—the Japanese foreign minister the other day had a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister in which he asked China to take a responsible role in the Russia—the aggression against Ukraine.
So you could see something like that, an urging of China—you know, to China bilaterally by the U.S. and Japan to take a more positive constructive role in ending the war against Ukraine. So I am looking for that. But Japan has its own diplomacy with China. It got curtailed. Xi was supposed to go in April of 2020 but the pandemic sidelined that. So that kind of attempt diplomatically to improve relations has been on hold through the pandemic and now I don’t see anything imminent in that direction that would improve the bilateral Japan-China relationship in the near term.
ROBBINS: So thanks.
So, Manjari, let’s talk about the Quad. You know, journalists—we love strife—(laughs)—and so what’s the agenda? The administration has been a lot less voluble about China since Russia invaded Ukraine. Is this meeting all about restoring China’s status as the number one strategic threat and is Modi going to get off the hook on Ukraine because they’re so focused on—you know, on talking about China? Or are they also going to use this meeting as a chance to pile on Modi behind the scenes to get him to say something about Russia and Ukraine? Or is it all about something else and I’m asking the wrong question?
MILLER: No, I think—so I don’t think the specter of China as a strategic threat ever went away or was even diminished by the Ukraine crisis at all. I do think the Quad is, definitely, about demonstrating to China that this is a meeting about democracy and I think Jake Sullivan explicitly used the term open societies to prioritize the fact that these are open societies meeting. So that’s number one on the agenda. It would also be a demonstration that there would be the similar kind of resolve in Asia on Taiwan as there has been in Europe on Ukraine. I think that’s something that the Biden administration would hope to solidify with this meeting.
But there are other things on the agenda. So President Biden is scheduled to announce the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and while details, you know, have still not been released on that, this promises to be a pretty major initiative in Asia since the TPP. And then, of course, you have the issue of vaccine diplomacy because now we have ramped up production of vaccines but then how do you distribute those vaccines across the world, and I think that’s going to be a priority for the Quad as well.
And finally, you’re right, President Biden is scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi. And I think that’ll be really interesting, for what is said privately behind the scenes to see how the United States could get India on board with its position on Russia. And there are rumors that the United States may offer India a very large military aid package which would, of course, go a long way toward—well, I don’t know if it would go a long way. But it would certainly help towards reducing India’s dependence on Russia for military supplies and hardware.
So all of these—a lot of things on the agenda. But, yes, a general approach to the region, shore up support for China, privately pressure India, and then, you know, get down to nitty-gritties, like vaccines and how do you make the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework work.
ROBBINS: So I am—this is just a—for me, an embarrassment of riches. I’ve got three Asia experts here. Can somebody explain to me what the IPEF is? And whether we’re going to learn more about it during this trip? And what you’re listening for? I mean, it seems like Biden doesn’t want to get involved in the CPTPP, in the successor to the TPP. And they’ve come up with this idea of, you know, setting up digital standards, or something like that. But they’re not talking about giving trade access. So is this just something to make everybody feel happy that the United States wants to engage in theory in the region without actually having a trade agreement? Or is there something more on the bones that we’re going to see from this meeting?
Manjari, you seem to think that actually it’s got some value. Not that I’m suggesting you’re wrong, because you know a lot more about this than I do.
MILLER: Well, we don’t have very many details. And I’m eager to hear from Shelia and Scott as well. But we really don’t have too many details. We do know that it’s about standards to actually make trade easier. So they’ve talked about fair and resilient trade. You know, to boost up supply chains which, of course, is really crucial. We’ve seen how crucial that is, with disruptions across the world during the pandemic. There has been talk about infrastructure, clean energy. But there’s also been talk about, you know, anti-corruption initiatives. And so—but we don’t have the nuts and bolts of it yet.
I think it has been suggested that it’s not going to be about free trade. I think the United States is wary of offering anything like a free trade framework. I’m not sure, you know, India would even buy into that. But we don’t know yet. So we’re actually waiting for the announcement of how they flesh it out. If it—if a large-scale, multilateral network economic framework is launched that all the Quad countries buy into, then it would be essentially the first Asia-focused economic strategy launched by the administration since—you know, since the TPP. So I’m just as eager as you to hear all—you know, how they flesh it out.
ROBBINS: So, Shelia, you’re smiling. What is it? (Laughs.)
SMITH: What is it, indeed. So I think it’s—there’s a package of issues. And I think Manjari went through the issues that I know about, with the one exception that Manjari didn’t mention, and I think is probably pretty important, is digital standards. But I think, you know, Manjari’s absolutely right. It’s all about standards and norms and creating a unified framework for trade where there’s a common basis of protection of standards. So I think that is the gist, as I understand it. I don’t know, but I do feel—I could be wrong on this—I do feel like the digital standards piece might take a little bit of priority here, because I think you’ve got countries in the region—including Japan—that have—Japan at the G-20 had put forward, when it hosted the G-20, a call for digital standardization—of a standardization of digital trade and some norms for privacy protection and other kinds of things to talk about.
So I think President Biden will have a partner in Prime Minister Kishida on the digital side of things. The supply chain resiliency, of course, overlaps with the Quad agenda, although I don’t see IPEF as a Quad initiative. I think this is a larger, broader regional initiative in which Southeast Asia is actually not the target, so to speak. But it’s going to be of great interest to both Japan and the United States to pursue this going forward. It overlaps, I think, with the Quad, but I’m not sure it’s a Quad-specific initiative. I think it’s a broader outreach.
Infrastructure will be important, in that sense. And, again, here in Tokyo, I think with Japan hosting the Quad, the Japanese government is hopeful that they can lay out, insert a kind of map of what kind of infrastructure projects are ongoing, and how then there can be coordination among the Quad members. So you might see infrastructure also emerge as a priority, or at least an area of common interest on the U.S.-Japan side. But I think we’re going to have to wait till it’s announced to see the staggering, if you will, of the—how they’ve knitted together these various disparate issues.
But I think the bottom line is the United States is not coming to the table with market access. And that’s the trade piece. That’s what the region is looking for. You saw in the ASEAN summit last week some quiet comments by the Singaporean and Malaysian leaders about this. They really want us to get back in the game, whether it’s CPTPP or it’s even just in the bilateral framing. But I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see on this visit.
ROBBINS: So, I mean, I’m not a trade reporter. I mean, I worked at the Wall Street Journal, so I know—I listened to other people talk about these things. Why do I feel like this is jedi mind games? Scott, do you take the IPEF seriously? Do the South Koreans take it seriously?
SNYDER: Well, I think the South Koreans take it seriously because the Biden administration is taking it seriously at this point. And I agree with the theme, that what we’re talking about so far appears to be a new packaging of existing Biden administration priorities in this economic policy area, especially the digital trade, and the supply chain, and standard setting. And whether or not it really takes off depends on whether partners believe that there’s enough there there to justify being engaged.
And also there’s a complication, it’s a way of framing an approach to economic issues that, ostensibly, should be shared by democracies, but it also, I think, so far is being defined as “inclusive,” meaning not exclusive to non-democracies. And so there is work to be done. And of course you’ve, you know, highlighted the biggest omission, from the perception of the region, that they’d like to see with regard to what the Biden administration might do in this area, the market access piece.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn it over to everybody on the call, but I just have really sort of a final jeopardy question here very quickly. Which is: How is Biden seen? I mean, think about our inflation levels, which everybody else has trouble with. Think about the polarization in U.S. politics. Think about the fear that, you know, we have here, and a lot of countries have around—certainly in Europe—that Trump may be coming back. At the same time, leading a pretty strong coalition on Ukraine. Certainly, the perception in Europe is that they’ve done quite a good job of rallying. Is Biden coming on this trip as a weak leader? Is he coming as a leader who’s coming back, because of Ukraine? Are they just so relieved to finally see Biden in Asia? What’s the perception of Biden as he lands in these countries? Scott, you want to start, because you’ve gone to Seoul, first?
SNYDER: Well, I think that the emphasis on restoration of alliances as priorities goes a long way in Korea and probably also in Japan. And so the fact that he is there and that he’s offered a vision for expanded cooperation with South Korea is important. And I think the next task is really related to how the bilateral alliance is embedded in the broader coalition of like-minded countries in support of provision of public goods, at least as related to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
ROBBINS: But, I mean, are the South Koreans going to believe anything? I mean, after the fact that Trump was, you know, threatening to make them pay for their missile defense or their troops? I mean, do they think it’s sort of Lucy and the football, and it’s all going to get pulled away in another couple years? Or are they willing to believe again?
SNYDER: Oh, I think they’re believing. And we’ll see whether they’re whistling past the graveyard. But they don’t have to deal with that right now. That’s an issue for two or three years from now.
ROBBINS: Got it. Manjari, when he sits down with the Quad and maybe half a dozen countries that may or may not sign onto the IPEF, or the IPEF, are they—do they see Biden as a strong leader, a wounded leader? Or are they—what’s his stature going to be around that table?
MILLER: Yeah. I think it’s interesting particularly to see this through the lens of the United States relationship with India, because I think right now what has happened is that the administrations—Trump administration as well as Biden administration—have made India such a priority that I think it’s irrelevant in terms of the president himself, simply because there’s been continuity between administrations in prioritizing India, even given the Indo-Pacific strategy. And so that hasn’t changed.
I think there was a time when, you know, shifts between Democrats to Republican presidents or between administrations would actually matter for India-U.S. relations. But I think the partnership has deepened to such an extent today that there’s no going back from that. And the Biden administration has been at pains to emphasize to India that it is a priority. And you can see this, for example, with how forbearing they’ve been on India’s position on Ukraine. And so I don’t think in that sense there is much of a change in how India views its relationship with the United States.
ROBBINS: And Shelia.
SMITH: So Japan is a little bit interesting on how they view not specifically President Biden, but how they view our politics of late. So the Trump era was not bad for Japan. And, you know, Prime Minister Abe, of all of our allied leaders, had the most success, I think, in engaging President Trump in the alliance, and in support of the alliance. And so the Japanese public didn’t have as harsh a rendering of that era as some of our other alliance, you know, publics did.
But that being said, I think there’s an appreciation of the predictability and the kind of way that the Biden administration does business. It’s steady state, reliable, coordinated in the way our bureaucracies work together, and the way they should. You know, that kind of process. I think that’s been a big plus. And of course, they know the team—the Indo-Pacific team, the czar, Kurt Campbell. They know everybody and so they’re comfortable there. But there’s two pieces.
The security piece, I think the Japanese have decided—and you can see this not only from the political leaders, but also from the public—that the time has come to invest more on their own military and to dig deeper in their pockets. There’s even talk about perhaps an aspirational 2 percent of GDP, which would be a doubling of Japanese military spending. I don’t think that’s coming overnight, but it’s an aspiration. It’s never been expressed before, nor has it been supported largely by the public, by the way. The second piece is offensive strike, what they’re calling counterstrike capability, which would allow Japan—this is a—this is not a done deal yet. And so we will see that conversation later this year. But it does allow Japan to have its own hedge, in a way. To have its own capability to deter, independent of or at least integrated with the United States.
On the economic piece, of course, there’s still great desire for us to come back to the table on CPTPP. Japan really feels on the spot in the CPTPP, as China and Taiwan are up next for accession. The U.K. is in the middle of the negotiations with Japan and the other members, but there’s some difficult times ahead for the CPTPP. And it would be more comfortable for Japan to have us with them than to be outside. But that being said, I expect Prime Minister Kishida will continue to encourage the president to do more economically to show that the United States is viably engaged, and deeply engaged, economically in the region. So I think they’re going to welcome him. I don’t think it’s a negative tone at all. And I think the expectations will be that the alliance will be strengthen by the visit.
ROBBINS: So he’ll be relieved to be there rather than here, for a while at least.
So I’m going to turn it over to my colleague Audrey, who’s going to remind everyone how to ask a question. And then we’ll turn to everybody in the group. Audrey.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
ROBBINS: Thank you so much. And I see we already have a question from my colleague and former editor and publisher, Karen Elliott House. Karen, nice to see you—hear you, at least.
Q: Nice to see you, Carla. I can see you. (Laughter.)
I’d like to ask Scott a question. Scott, I don’t see much of you since we were in Pyongyang together thirty years ago, but it’s nice to hear you. You know what you’re talking about, so I just wanted to ask quickly: If there’s a nuclear test by the North Koreans, or some other provocation while Biden is in Korea or Japan, what should the U.S. do? And what will the U.S. do, in your view?
SNYDER: What would be desirable to see would be a united stance at the U.N. Security Council and a significant ratcheting up of the sanctions pressure on North Korea. But of course, we know that the U.N. Security Council is not an available instrument or tool that the Biden administration is going to be able to use, and that it’s already fallen back on unilateral and coordinated regional measures in order to try to express discontent with what North Korea has already done. The big $64,000 question is whether or not a nuclear test would tilt China back towards Security Council cooperation. It’s unlikely that an ICBM test would do that. And I fear that they also would not do that as related to a nuclear test.
But what you’re really pointing to is that under the current circumstances, North Korea does have a relatively unfettered pathway towards continued advancement of its military development. And that will be front and center for Yoon and Biden to try to build a coordinated strategy. And the good news is that they are sufficiently likeminded to actually move forward in deep and real discussions about serious measures that might be taken in that direction.
ROBBINS: Is “serious measures” just a—when you say serious measures?
SNYDER: Well, it’s complicated because they will want to try to impose a penalty on North Korea, if they can, without allowing the situation to escalate further. And so what I expect, based on the past record of North Korea’s interactions with conservative South Korean administrations, is that we will see a crisis that has to be managed. And the question is how we come out of the crisis, and whether it will be on terms that at least allow for a dialogue to take place that would enable them bounding of future crises. I’m not necessarily anticipating that such a dialogue will be able in any sort of near-term timeframe to address the fundamental gap between the U.S. and North Korea on the nuclear issue.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So, Mark Manning, can you identify yourself and ask your question?
Q: Yes. Hi, everyone. This is Mark Manyin from the Congressional Research Service. Thanks for a great discussion.
A couple questions on the Quad. First, Manjari, you mentioned that—if I understood you right—that the U.S. likely hopes that it will solidify some sort of understanding on Taiwan. And I’m wondering if you could, you know, be more explicit and maybe invite Shelia and Scott as well to talk about what you expect in terms of mention of China at all during the Quad meeting. In the past, the last two meetings last year, you know, there was a pretty concerted effort not to mention China at the—for example, in joint statements. So, frankly, I’d be surprised if there were any mention of it, but I’m wondering if you’re seeing something or hearing something differently.
And then secondly—yeah, just secondly really quickly. President Yoon has talked about, like, a phased participation in the Quad. You know, participating in some of the working groups first, and then maybe membership further down the road. So I’m wondering how India and Japan have responded so far to this possibility.
MILLER: So, Mark, those are the two questions, right? So let me go start with the first, which is that I also—(laughs)—would be very shocked if any Quad statement explicitly mentioned China. The Quad has over and over again said that it is not an anti-China alliance. And, frankly, India would not be a part of the Quad if it would be a very explicitly anti-China alliance. And what we have seen the Biden administration do is, in fact, move away from emphasizing the Quad as a security arrangement to emphasizing everything else—you know, multilateral economic arrangements, you know, cooperation. But they have not mentioned security.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that implicitly it’s been stated by the administration that the trip will be conveying what it means for, you know, democracies and open societies to get together. And this will also just make it very clear, without ever them having to come out and say so, that there will be support for Taiwan through the region in the event of China deciding to apply the lessons from Ukraine, which is something that the United States is afraid of. So absolutely no explicit China statement in the Quad. I’m not expecting that either. But is it a demonstration of support? Yes. And is China aware of it? Yes, absolutely.
And I’m sorry, could you repeat the second question?
Q: Yeah. South Korea—India’s attitudes as well as Japan’s on the possibility of South Korea participating in Quad activities and maybe joining at a later date.
MILLER: I have not seen any statements from Indian officials—you know, any public statements on South Korea joining the Quad, but India’s relationship with South Korea has been developing. India welcomes the idea of, you know, multilateral cooperation through the Quad. It has bought into this idea now. And implicitly if not explicitly, it does offer India a bolster against China’s encroachment in the Indo-Pacific. That is why the Quad is of interest to India. So I would expect India to welcome South Korea in the Quad.
SMITH: So, Mark, let me just give a very brief add-on to Manjari’s comments here. I think it’s important to remember the structure of the Quad. You know, when it started out it was working groups, right? So Manjari’s mentioned the COVID vaccination piece. The supply chain resilience is another piece, the future innovation—sort of what Prime Minister Suga back then called post—you know, post—what am I thinking of?—post-(G5 ?) innovations are getting a—getting a leap ahead together on the next generation of technologies.
But I think this one was really sort of set up, I think, so that we could get some reporting back—“we” being the Quad leaders could get some reporting back on how those working groups are progressing. That was at least the idea initially. And of the two, I’ve already mentioned that I thought infrastructure might be a priority for the Japanese, but, obviously, the supply chain resilience, you know, everybody is inviting Samsung, TSMC, semiconductor producers to come to their country. Japan has got a deal going on. We are also working on that. So I think you’re going to hear more about that and the semiconductor conversation may continue in Tokyo after Seoul. But I think—I think that’s the idea, we’ll get some reporting back and some coordination on some of the specifics.
But there is this overlay of the Russian invasion, obviously, that’s going to affect this meeting. And of course, you could very well have a new prime minister from Australia attending. And that—you know, the Labor Party has said and he has said—if it is the Labor candidate that wins; we don’t know—that they are going to attend the Quad and he is supportive of the Quad. So you don’t have tension in domestic politics in Australia, but you would have a brand-new leader at the table if that were the outcome of the Australian election.
So I think if they’re going to have a successful Quad it’ll be slow and steady, concentrate on the working groups and what they’ve accomplished, and try to avoid the divisive issues—as Manjari pointed out, the divisive issues that could, you know, make the Quad look at least, if not reality, but at least be perceived as less cohesive than they would like. So that’s my take on what I think is going to happen.
On the South Korea, I don’t see Quad+, Mark. I think it’s more likely—and I think President Yoon has already stated this—but the working groups will provide platforms, then, for others to participate in some of these problem-solving exercises. And I think President Yoon was quite clear that he thought that South Korea might be willing to participate in that supply chain working group or supply chain resilience group, and I think that would be excellent.
SNYDER: I’ll just add one comment about the Biden administration’s approach to South Korea as related to the Quad, and that is that under the Moon administration we’ve moved from a situation where the U.S. apparently wanted South Korea to be engaged with the Quad but without being formally asked to a situation in which you have a leader that seems quite eager to engage with Quad activities but is not being fully yet embraced in that quest. And so it’s peculiar, that shift, and so I liked the way you asked the question.
ROBBINS: So while people think about further questions, I’m going to start treating you guys like my students: I’m going to call on you. (Laughs.) Doyle, I’m looking at you.
So can we talk a little bit about COVID and how this fits into these meetings? Manjari mentioned that there was going to be a discussion on vaccines, potentially, at the Quad. Obviously, I’m puzzled about what’s been happening in North Korea, Scott. I mean, they kept denying that they had any disease. Maybe that’s true. One of the great advantages of being an autarky is that nobody comes in. But now, suddenly, they said not only do they have COVID, but they have an explosive problem with COVID. What do you believe about what their situation is? What do we know about what their situation is? And does this have a potential for a diplomatic opening here?
SNYDER: Well, I think it does present an opportunity for a diplomatic opening. It’s hard to know whether that opportunity will be acted upon.
You know, North Korea has been in such a precarious situation over the course of the past two years, essentially keeping the door shut and implementing a full-stage quarantine while denying having any COVID cases. Now they’ve shifted to a full-scale crisis for a completely unvaccinated population, and that does open the door to North Korea to receive help for a problem that they now admit that they have. And actually, both South Korea’s Yoon publicly has pledged assistance to North Korea if North Korea formally asks and the Biden administration also has been sending positive signals about the possibility of providing vaccines to North Korea. But I think that North Korea’s partner of choice would probably end up remaining China, even despite the fact that they might not be getting the best vaccine, simply because it would be safer and also because the likelihood of North Korea getting on their knees and formally admitting a need to South Korea is just so low.
ROBBINS: So, but why would they—I mean, wouldn’t it have just been easier for them to go quietly to Beijing and say we’ve got this problem, you know, can’t we just have some vaccine from you guys and help? Why did they suddenly make this big public announcement that they’ve got a really big problem? That seemed to me to be much more of an international appeal.
SNYDER: Well, I think because the situation finally maybe spun out of the regime’s control, is what I’m guessing. You know, the quarantines worked for China. They were working for North Korea to some degree. But you know, North Korea, with Omicron, engaged in some pretty significant super-spreader events in April with their military parade back on April 25th and with a lot of pictures that involved senior members of the leadership with large numbers of people. And you know, in the context of Omicron and the breakdown of Chinese capacity to implement a zero-COVID policy, it should not be surprising that North Korea also is unable to contain this variant to the degree that they might have been able to earlier.
And so I think that we’ve just finally got to a point where the situation has become impossible for the North Korean apparatus to manage. I was expecting us to hit that point a lot earlier than now. But you know, usually what happens is you have the admission of the problem at a point when the North Koreans find themselves unable to handle it on their own, and so that’s where we are.
ROBBINS: Thanks. I see Doyle has a question, so I’m going to let him ask the question and then—and then have you guys jump in with anything you want to answer about because Manjari had mentioned that COVID was going to come up at the Quad as well. But, Doyle, you’re on.
Q: Thank you, Carla. Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times.
And with apologies to all the regionalists, my question is actually about Ukraine. Given that Ukraine will still be a live issue during this event, given that the other—that three—I’m just talking specifically about the Quad—given India’s and Modi’s status as the odd man out but the fact that the other leaders may want to say something unilaterally, may be asked about it if they do any sort of press availability, will that cause any discomfort for Mr. Modi? Are we—you know, is there the chance, the possibility of—given the fact that they’ll talk about it in private—an evolution of India’s position?
MILLER: Hey, Doyle.
ROBBINS: And, Doyle, happy birthday.
MILLER: And happy birthday. (Laughs.) Thank you for the question.
So I would expect Mr. Modi to feel very uncomfortable indeed if there is a public press event and he’s asked about Ukraine. I would expect him to try and sidestep that question.
Is there an evolution of India’s position on Ukraine or will there be? I don’t expect an evolution on India’s position to come immediately after the Quad summit. Apart from anything else, domestically that would not send a very good signal.
I will say that India’s position on Ukraine is complicated. You know, it is—it is really a lose-lose situation for India, any way—which way it looks at it.
If it publicly condemns Russia—you know, so far it has abstained in the United Nations. It has not voted for the resolutions and not voted against the resolutions; it has abstained. And the abstentions have really been because not only is it very dependent on Russian military hardware, as everyone knows, but also because India is really worried that if it comes out and condemns Russia it’s going to be pushing Russia into the arms of China. And that is really India’s biggest nightmare, is Russia and China aligned together. And so that doesn’t go really well.
On the other hand, if it publicly supports Russia, then India is going to alienate the United States. And there is no question that today the United States is one of India’s most valuable, if not the most valuable, strategic partners, and India needs the United States to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
So there is really no good path for India out of this except a very slow evolution of its strategy. And so I think if, for example, an arms aid package is announced between the United States and India, that would go some way towards weaning India’s dependence off of Russia.
You also have to remember that India has been trying to diversify its military hardware since the Cold War ended, so this is not that—it’s not the case that India’s imports from Russia have not been declining. They have. But it is just the fact that its hardware is still today about 70 percent Russian, so that means anytime it needs upgrades, anytime it needs new software, anytime it needs to repair anything it has to rely on Russia. And then, of course, you can’t just, you know, wholesale important U.S. arms on top of that because you have interoperability issues, you have the United States worried about sensitive technologies and compatibility issues. So it’s not—it’s not an easy situation.
So, yes, I do expect—I do expect that at the bilateral meeting that President Biden and Mr. Modi will have it will be about Ukraine. I do expect that there will be offers from the United States to try and ease India’s concerns and to try and get India to move away from its Ukraine position. I do not expect that to happen immediately after the Quad summit.
ROBBINS: Can we talk a little bit about is climate change going to come up at these meetings, or certainly a question—the tradeoff between energy and energy prices, obviously of grave concern to the Japanese and their dependence issues here, and the tradeoffs the United States has been asking people to make here? Or are we just going to sort of whistle past that graveyard in these meetings?
SNYDER: One area that is not directly related to climate—well, it is directly related to climate change, I suppose, but it’s not really in the climate-change basket—that I think we’re likely to see in the South Korea leg of the visit is a greater commitment by the United States and South Korea to develop peaceful nuclear energy, including enhanced cooperation possibly to be active in the international nuclear market. And that is of particular significance as related to Eastern Europe and potential needs for replacement energy sources for Russian oil, but also it’s related to Russia as a significant player in the international nuclear market and the damage that they have done to themselves as a credible player in supplying nuclear energy internationally.
MILLER: I can jump in on this, Carla, as well. So I—you know, under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—you know, again, we haven’t—(laughs)—we haven’t seen the nuts and bolts, but clean energy, as Scott points out, is an important part of it. But I do expect climate change to be very much on the minds of all leaders, particularly Prime Minister Modi.
If you look at what’s going on in India right now, temperatures are at record highs across the country and it’s one of the reasons why India has slammed shut the wheat exports in order to ease, you know, global hunger—you know, or the wheat shortage that has been caused by the Ukraine crisis. And so these rising temperatures, these crazy temperatures is one of the reasons that India has done an about-turn on the export of wheat. And so, yes, I absolutely expect that to be on the agenda.
ROBBINS: Sheila, anything on—
SMITH: The only thing, I don’t expect this to be high on the list for the U.S.-Japan piece, but just to echo what Scott said. You know, Japan, as everybody remembers, in 2011 had the great east Japan earthquake, and that stopped—they stopped their nuclear reactors and reorganized their safety oversight. So I think you’re going to—you’re starting to hear in Japan the, you know, question about restarting and making sure that the public is onboard. But nuclear energy will, I think, get a little bit of a lift domestically. Japan and the United States, but Japan has also been a very active actor in the global market, and so that would also be somewhere where the Japanese industry in particular but also the Japanese government. Prime Minister Abe was very forceful on this in his time.
Prime Minister Kishida I don’t know how to read on this issue, to be quite honest with you. He is a very strong proponent of nuclear disarmament and comes from Hiroshima. So he himself I’m not sure has articulated publicly his own perspective on that piece of civil nuclear technology, so I’m just unaware of where he would stand on this. But I don’t—there’s so many other things for the U.S. and Japan to talk about, I don’t see this as being on the public—high on the public list.
One little point on Doyle’s question about Ukraine. Japan is going to—you know, I think the G-7 will be talking about post-conflict reconstruction for Ukraine at some point, and I suspect that conversation is beginning already quietly under the surface. And I think Japan is going to be very interested in participating in that. I don’t know that it’ll come out. It certainly is not on the Quad agenda. It may or may not come out in the public arena with the Biden-Kishida conversation. But I think there’s a—there is—as we look forward to the overlap between Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific, I would keep the reconstruction piece in mind for later on down the road.
ROBBINS: So thank you for that.
So we only have a few more minutes. So imagine that I’m a not particularly strong reporter who focuses on Asia. I’m not an Asianist and I cover the White House, so I’m getting on a plane—something that has happened to me before—and I’m going with the president. Tell me what—you know, what I should be listening for in each of these talks, the things that you think will be perhaps the most significant news, the thing that—the unanswered question that you would most want to listen for for each of these stops, the thing that would—the surprise. The news. The strife. The thing that’s going to get me on the front page. (Laughter.) Not that we think that way in the news business. (Laughter.)
SMITH: Scott’s got that issue, I think. (Laughter.)
SNYDER: Well, inevitably North Korea and whatever Biden and Yoon say about North Korea will probably be in the headline. But I think the significant conversation, actually, behind the scenes is probably going to be more around the question of how does the U.S. effectively deliver credible extended deterrence to South Korea and what specific mechanisms does that look like.
We’ve got a very high South Korean public opinion favorability toward the idea of acquiring a South Korean nuclear capability, and I don’t think that that necessarily is where Yoon wants to go or even necessarily where the South Koreans want to go. But it does represent, I think, a level of anxiety in South Korea that is related to the credibility of the U.S., actually, as the actor able to deliver a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem that is so overshadowing in terms of South Korean security.
ROBBINS: And extended deterrence meaning that we would actually, you know—if they were to attack, we would give them a—our nuclear umbrella extends over them. They don’t really believe it, so they want to have their own nuclear weapons.
ROBBINS: And what can we give them to allay their anxiety?
SNYDER: Well, the discussion—the critical areas of discussion will be related to the positioning of nuclear-capable assets. And also, there has been a constant refrain about whether or not tactical nuclear weapons should return to South Korean territory. It’s not—it’s not a place where I think the Biden administration wants to go, but there is a subcurrent in the South Korean discussion related to that question.
ROBBINS: So something we should definitely be listening for, particularly when this whole question about the Russians and their large number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe—that’s definitely something. That would be news, Scott. (Laughs.)
SMITH: So nothing so—nothing so sexy as that, but it’s the same problem. I think the Japanese are going to be the—Japan and the United States will make a statement on deterrence, on sharing the—not sharing the burden, but sharing the ambition of deterring China. And whether they differentiate between North Korea and China, I think, depends on whether there’s a missile test. But I think you are going to see for the first time in the alliance this idea of combining deterrence, right—that this is not just going to just be U.S. saying we’re there with the nuclear umbrella but Japan is also going to be contributing to that.
So, you know, you could—if there’s a test—a missile test—you could hear a lot more from the Japanese on their future investments. I don’t think you’re going to hear anything about this. But what’s wobbling out there in a similar way in the public is former Prime Minister Abe has raised this question of nuclear sharing, which is, again, a very unusual idea to be debating inside Japan and I don’t think it has a lot of support. But you could hear some of the more controversial ideas come up in the context of the Biden visit. So nuclear sharing, the conventional strike—you could hear a little bit of chatter around that. But I don’t see the same kind of surprising headliner coming out of the Japanese visit.
ROBBINS: Manjari, the last surprising news thought from you.
MILLER: Well, I would be absolutely flabbergasted if there were a statement that India signed on to that either explicitly outlines deterrence or China or Ukraine in any form, and, to me, if that happened it would be headline news simply because that would indicate a major swing—not just a shift, like, a swing in Indian foreign policy. So I do not expect that.
I expect very couched language, which is not, perhaps, headline newsworthy, but a continuity of India’s very slowly changing position. And so I do expect careful language in Quad’s—in joint Quad statements that India will sign on to.
ROBBINS: So we’re going to be looking for the body language on Ukraine and India.
Thank you. You guys have been great. Thank you so much, Scott. Thank you so much, Sheila. Thank you, Manjari, and thank you so much, everybody, and this has been a great conversation and we’ll see whether your headlines materialize.