President Biden’s Japan and South Korea Trip, With Sheila A. Smith and Scott A. Snyder

Sheila A. Smith, CFR’s John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies, and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what to expect from U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Japan and South Korea.

May 17, 2022 — 38:02 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Sheila A. Smith

John E. Merow Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies

Scott A. Snyder

Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy

Show Notes

Sheila A. Smith, CFR’s John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies, and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what to expect from U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Japan and South Korea.

 

Books and Blogs Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Asia Unbound, CFR.org

 

Sheila A. Smith, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power (2019)

 

Scott A. Snyder, Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (2018)

 

Statements Mentioned

 

U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” The White House, May 21, 2021

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is President Biden's visit to South Korea and Japan. With me to discuss what to expect from Biden's trip to Seoul and Tokyo, which begins this Friday, are Sheila Smith and Scott Snyder. Sheila is John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the council. She is an expert on Japanese foreign policy and politics, and has written widely and well in both topics. Her most recent book is Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power. Scott is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on US-Korea policy at the council. He has written widely and well in issues affecting the Korean peninsula. Scott's most recent book is South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers. Sheila and Scott both blog about Japanese and Korean issues at Asia Unbound, which you can find on cfr.org. Sheila and Scott, thanks for joining me.

Scott Snyder:

Thank you, Jim.

Sheila Smith:

Thank you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

So President Biden is set to get on a plane and fly for what is a four day trip to South Korea and Japan. And he's going there. It's his first trip to Asia as President. And before we get into the details of the trip, I was hoping we could start with a bit of a scene setter on what the mood is like these days in both South Korea and Japan. And Scott, since President Biden is making his first stop in Seoul, I'll let you open up.

Scott Snyder:

Okay, well, Jim, South Korea is just adjusting to a new President and new administration. The administration of Yoon Suk-yeol. There is a lot going on in terms of just trying to get established. And it's really remarkable that Yoon is going to be hosting a presidential visit from President Biden within two weeks of his inauguration. He has also moved the center of operations from the Blue House to a new presidential compound, the former defense ministry. And so that adds some complexity to this. But there's a lot of change in the air and a bit of expectancy, I think, about a new era that President Biden will be arriving at the beginning of.

Jim Lindsay:

I have to ask you, Scott, is moving operations from the Blue House to this defense complex, something akin to the President deciding to move out of the White House, the American president moving out of the White House and heading over to the Pentagon?

Scott Snyder:

That's exactly right. The former Blue House compound is going to be turned, is going to be opened to the citizenry to enjoy and serve as a kind of park. But there's a lot of logistics involved, including in setting up secure communications at the new location, and ensuring that all of the support that is necessary for the new President to operate from the foreign ministry of defense is in place and is working effectively.

Jim Lindsay:

And how would you describe the South Korean public's reaction to the inauguration of President Yoon? Are we seeing a rally around the president effect or as we often see here in the United States, a bit of partisanship, even from the start of a presidency?

Scott Snyder:

It's clearly the latter. I do not see a rally around the president in fact, the new president is polling at less than 50% approval, which is historically low in comparison with other South Korean presidents. His pick for prime minister has not yet been approved by the opposition controlled National Assembly, even despite the beginning of his administration. And President Yoon, earlier this week, has just gone to the National Assembly in order to try to build support, bipartisan support for his agenda. But I think that it's going to be hard one and very difficult to achieve. The opposition even turned down his invitation to a Soju party designed to help ease the atmosphere and maybe break through some of the challenges in terms of polarization that he's currently facing.

Jim Lindsay:

So Scott, you're going to have to explain to people, who have not had the pleasure to visit South Korea, what a Soju party is.

Scott Snyder:

Well, Soju is South Korea's strongest alcoholic beverage of choice. And the purpose obviously is to create a relaxed atmosphere where people are more likely to engage in compromise, than is the case if everybody is sober.

Jim Lindsay:

I would just say, from personal experience, go slowly on Soju. Sheila, why don't you give us a sense of what the mood is in Tokyo?

Sheila Smith:

Great. Thank you, Jim. So unlike South Korea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has had a fairly steady state time in office. He was elected prime minister last year, last fall. But he has been very sensitive to COVID and the public's response to him largely is derived from his COVID management. You may remember, Jim, that Prime Minister Kishida shut the border quite precipitously last fall, when the Omicron wave was threatening to come to Japan. They are just now slowly starting to open up again, as public confidence is growing. But he's doing pretty well. Kishida's got about a 60, he's in the 60 percentile, goes up a little bit, comes down a little bit, but stays pretty solid. The public like him. The other is thing to remember is that Japan, this year in 2022, is going through a fairly significant review of its strategy. There is a new National Security Strategy due to come out this fall.

Sheila Smith:

There will be a new defense plan coming out. And as Kishida was coming into office late last year, his party, the conservative party, really went fully forward, proactive on both raising significantly Japanese defense spending, but also introducing what we call counterstrike capability, or the possibility of being able to reach out and touch a neighbor with an offensive strike capability. So this is going to be a pretty interesting year on the security side in Japan.

Sheila Smith:

But other than that, I think you're watching Japan still be a very active participant in the global debate over, for example, Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Japan has really stepped up here in a way it hasn't in the past. And the interesting thing here is the Japanese public has actually been ahead of the government in many ways. So you've got a very strong sense of public support for this proactive Japanese role in the world. And especially in the sanctions against Russia, which I would've been surprised to see a few months ago. But you see a public now deeply engaged in the idea that Japan needs to act on the global stage for its own interest, but also to support the rules based order.

Jim Lindsay:

Sheila, Scott mentioned that in South Korea President Yoon faces divided government. The National Assembly is controlled by the opposition party. That's not the case in Japan. But my understanding is the LDP, Liberal Democratic Party, which has long dominated Japanese politics, actually consists of a variety of factions or groupings. And there can be quite significant divisions among them on policy matters. So that Prime Minister Kishida is not necessarily navigating smooth waters, even if his party controls the Diet. On this issue of foreign policy, and Japan sort of taking a more forward leaning position on defense, is that something where he has the backing of the LDP or are there important fissures or divisions within the party itself?

Sheila Smith:

Well, the interesting thing, Jim, as you pointed out is that the LDP now has a fairly strong, let's say realist, slightly more hawkish faction. And that is led by former Prime Minister Abe. So Prime Minister Abe is often out ahead of the current Prime Minister, Mr. Kishida, on these defense issues, and sort of setting the tone or pacing the debate if you will. So on things like, for example, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Abe said, "Well, I think it's time that Japan talk about nuclear sharing with the United States." In other words, that Japan too should have nuclear weapons on its territory, and have some control perhaps over the use of nuclear weapons as a way of shoring up the nuclear umbrella, the extended deterrent that the United States offers Japan.

Sheila Smith:

I think it's important to note, compared to South Korea, Japan has a different political system. This is a parliamentary system, unlike the presidential system in South Korea. And so the prime minister depends on a majority in the lower house or a ruling coalition that has a majority in the lower house. There will be an upper house election this July, that Mr. Kishida has his eye on. And it's largely not because the LDP or the conservatives are in danger of losing it. But as you point out, Jim, it's because the factional dynamics inside the party are a little bit fluid. And so Kishida needs to win big in the upper house to be able to have a stable next three years of confidence in his government from within, from within his conservative party. So it's not something we should worry too much about, but as you point out this factional piece is in a really interesting dynamic that Kishida has to manage carefully.

Jim Lindsay:

Is Kishida likely to carry the day with those elections in the upper house.

Sheila Smith:

I think so. I think barring a setback, for example, on COVID, that would be the primary sensitivity, I think, for the Japanese public right now. Going into this year, I think many of us thought that perhaps the security debate could be a little bit of a wobbly issue for Kishida and for his ruling coalition partner, a very small party named the Komeito, which tends to not be so forward leaning on defense. But frankly, his party has gone far more forward on the issues of defense spending and this conventional strike issue. And I don't think the Japanese public is reacting badly to it. In fact, public polling suggests the public may be quite convinced that Japan needs greater investment in its own defense capability. So I think the weakness might just be the COVID issue between now and July.

Jim Lindsay:

Is there any irritation, Sheila, in Tokyo over the fact that this is President Biden's first trip to Tokyo as President. We're now 16 months into his presidency. Indeed, it's Joe Biden's first trip to Asia. He's already gone, not once, not twice, but three times to Europe. Any sense that Japanese leaders feel that they're being disrespected?

Sheila Smith:

No, I don't think so, Jim. And I think that's because the Japanese political leaders, as well as the public, are quite sensitive to what's happening in Europe at the moment. So I don't think there's a sense that they are being shortchanged by the President. I think also Prime Minister Kishida has had some time with Biden in the G7 meetings in Europe, virtually in their, over the airwaves, so to speak. And they know each other from previous times in office. It's important to remember that the prime minister was the foreign minister for Prime Minister Abe for five years. And in that capacity knew, then Vice President Biden, who had been in Tokyo too. So there's a good dynamic between the two leaders, I think this is a moment in the world when the Japanese fully understand the complexities of trying to get the President to the region. But they will want to make sure that there is a very strong statement of support for the Indo-Pacific strategy, and for the alliances, both US-Japan and US-ROK when he does come.

Jim Lindsay:

So Scott, is there any irritation in Seoul that it's taken Joe Biden 16 months to visit?

Scott Snyder:

Well, you have to keep in mind that for President Yoon, it's day 11. And so it seems like Biden is coming pretty early for the new era. And actually I think the Biden administration had the Japanese Prime Minister and the South Korean President over, as their first visitors to the White House, back in April and May of last year. And I think that has counted for a lot, at least in South Korea, in terms of people feeling like the Biden administration is there. Whether or not they've been sufficiently engaged on North Korea policy may be a matter of debate, but now we're going to be opening a new era of coordination as related to how to deal with North Korea. And in that respect, President Yoon's campaign platform is very much aligned with the Biden approach. And it may be one reason why it kind of makes sense for President Biden to go and visit President Yoon so early.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk then, Scott, about what it is that President Biden wants to speak about when he's in Seoul. And what President Yoon wants to speak about when President Biden is in Seoul. To what extent do their two agendas overlap?

Scott Snyder:

I think there's a strong convergence. President Yoon, in his inauguration address, mentioned the word freedom 35 times, and has signaled that he's very much aligned with a kind of like-minded slash freedom agenda that I think resonates with the Biden administration. As a new leader, it'll be very important to establish that personal relationship, to affirm shared commitments based on common values. And I think one area where Yoon is different from the previous administration, of the Moon administration, is that everything that Moon wanted to do in the Alliance was bilateral. But I think that there's a likelihood that President Yoon is going to be much more willing to aid in embedding the bilateral Alliance framework into broader mini lateral and multilateral frameworks, such as US-Japan-South Korea cooperation, greater cooperation with the Quad, and even the idea of maybe strengthening the relationship between the US-South Korea Alliance and NATO. So all of those areas, I think, are areas where they can kind of get off to a good start and invigorate the prospect for really broad Alliance cooperation.

Jim Lindsay:

Scott, for people who don't follow Northeast Asia politics closely, why would the idea that the President of South Korea would want to deepen ties among South Korea, Japan, and the United States be a big deal and be a departure from past practice?

Scott Snyder:

Well, I think that there are two aspects. One is the fact that the Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship has been so poor historically, because of history issues and differences over history issues, going back to World War II.

Jim Lindsay:

For people who don't know the history, Japan established a colony in South Korea in 1910 and ruled the country through World War II.

Scott Snyder:

That's absolutely correct. And the legacy history issues are involving the treatment of victims of Japanese Imperialism from that period, including victims of forced labor and victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial military. And so those issues have remained as sticking points. They've become even more difficult in recent years because of some South Korean court judgments on those issues about compensation for victims. And so those were significant issues that stand in the way of a better Japan-South Korea relationship, even though President Yoon in his campaign actually was very bold in pledging to return the Japan-South Korea relationship to its historical high point of the late 1990s. When then President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo made a significant bilateral agreement between the two sides. But the other issue is that it shows that Yoon is willing to align more closely with Japan and the United States, as related to China. And this is in stark contrast to the previous Moon administration's assiduous efforts to avoid being perceived as making a strategic choice in the context of the rivalry between the US and China.

Jim Lindsay:

So you think Yoon is more willing to make a choice than the predecessor Moon administration was.

Scott Snyder:

I believe that Yoon is more willing to voice his choices, actually the Moon administration made some choices, but they just didn't want to publicize it. And so that's where actually there's a foundation upon which the Biden administration can work. The Moon-Biden joint statement of May 2021 provided a pretty extensive framework for US-South Korea cooperation that, in my view, the Yoon administration should go ahead and adopt. Maybe they will add special phrases from their campaign, like comprehensive strategic alliance, but in terms of the overall direction of alliance cooperation, there's not really a big difference or a need to reinvent the wheel. It's really more a matter of taking what is on paper and actually implementing it.

Jim Lindsay:

What do you think will happen in the discussions on North Korea?

Scott Snyder:

On North Korea, the Biden administration, in its North Korea review, talked about diplomacy and strict deterrents. The shift from Moon to Yoon emphasizes the deterrence aspect more than the diplomacy aspect. And I think that part of what Yoon and Biden will do is to try to reinvigorate deterrents, including restoration of a normal pace for US-South Korea military exercises. But North Korea has also just mentioned, admitted that they have Omicron deaths as a result of the pandemic for the first time in two years. And that's actually a signal, potentially, of an opportunity to respond. Yoon has already pledged extensive humanitarian support. I think the Biden administration would also be willing to supply vaccines. And in many respects, after two years of denial in North Korea, the fact that North Korea has finally gone public about their COVID problems suggests that they finally reached a point where they cannot handle it by themselves.

Jim Lindsay:

Sheila, after President Biden wraps up his talks in Seoul, he heads to Tokyo, but he has a rather complicated agenda while he's there. My understanding is first he's having a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Kishida. But then there's going to be a meeting of the Quad, which brings together leaders of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. This will be the third Quad summit, the second in person. But then there's also talk about the Biden administration rolling out its new trade economic initiative for the area, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which I believe is now going by the nickname IPEF, or at least in some recent meetings I've been to. So perhaps you can sort of walk us through, Sheila, what you expect to happen at each of these specific events.

Sheila Smith:

Thank you, Jim. I'll try. So I think you're right. They're going to start off with Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden in a discussion about the Alliance, our bilateral Alliance. And as you know, the US-Japan have a treaty, a security treaty, in which there are what we call Article 5 protections by the United States. United States commits itself to deter against aggression towards Japan, but also to assist should it become necessary. So I expect that there will be a reiteration of that Article 5 promise by the President. It is something the Japanese public will be listening for carefully, especially in the context, as we noted earlier, of the Russian invasion.

Sheila Smith:

I think there's going to be a lot of overlap between the Alliance agenda and this sort of, how do we ensure that the post-war order remains intact? How do we deal with aggression writ large, globally? But I think we start off with the bilateral piece from a series of what we call the two-plus-two meetings that began at the very early days or months of the Biden administration. You had the leading diplomats and defense ministers of both countries coming together to set out an agenda. And that two-plus-two agenda is largely about the region that is in the vicinity of Japan. You're going to possibly hear the word China many times mentioned here because of the uptick in military pressure in and around Japan. You're also going to hear a lot about, or maybe not a lot, but at least reference to Taiwan and the growing concern about the PLA, the People's Liberation Army, it's Navy and Air Force, and the kinds of pressures it's been putting on Taiwan and Taiwanese defenses to signal Chinese interests in making sure that the unification happens.

Sheila Smith:

So I think you're going to see a lot of that kind of conversation about what the Alliance needs to do to upgrade its ability to deter aggression in that very close proximity to Japan. As I noted earlier, Jim, I think you're also going to see a considerable emphasis on deterrence. Not only the United States extended nuclear deterrents, but also Japan's desire to beef up its own ability to deter aggression by investing in its military capabilities. And here, I don't expect to hear the counterstrike capability to be in the documents that come out, but in the back of everybody's mind, of course, will be this desire by Japan to enhance its own abilities.

Sheila Smith:

From there I think you're going to have a little bit of a conversation about Russia and aggression. And about the way in which Japan, the United States, have coordinated with European allies on the response, both punishing Russia through sanctions, aiding Ukraine through assistance. Your listeners may be interested to know that Japan, for the very first time, provided military gear. Not weapons, but helmets, flak jackets, in the field medical equipment, the kind of stuff that's absolutely crucial for defense forces that are working out in Ukraine. And that's with zero controversy, zero political controversy in Japan, which was very un-.

Jim Lindsay:

And that normally would've been-

Sheila Smith:

Oh yeah.

Jim Lindsay:

... a big political controversy given Japan's history, the Article 9 and the Constitution.

Sheila Smith:

That's right. And you would've had a big flare up in the Diet, Japan's parliament, by opposition parties criticizing the government for violating the spirit of Article 9. Because, of course, this is a country you're aiding who was in the middle of combat or military operations. Not a peep, not a peep. And the interesting inside story of that is that this is something that came out of the Prime Minister's office, not from the Ministry of Defense as a suggestion, but from the top down. And even the Ministry of Defense, I think, was a little surprised by this, how smoothly it ended up going. But I think you're going to have a fair chunk of this about the rules based order, about the global rules based order in Japan, and the United States' obligations to continue to defend it alongside other like-minded countries. So that's kind of the bilateral.

Sheila Smith:

I think there is also, on your comment about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Prime Minister Kishida has already expressed to the President that he welcomes this as a signal of American economic engagement with the region. And of course-

Jim Lindsay:

Do we know what this is, Sheila?

Sheila Smith:

There's a lot of issues on the table, things like standards for digital trade, infrastructure, good high quality infrastructure building. There's a whole set of issues that come under this framework, how they're going to be prioritized and what is going to be the way in which American economic engagement with the region is expressed, remains to be seen. I expect two things, digital and digital standards will be high on the list of priorities. This is something obviously Japan also supports and they have, former Prime Minister Abe has articulated that in the G20, in the past. But the real problem, Jim, is that we're not coming to the table in the region with market access.

Jim Lindsay:

Explain why that's a significant issue, Sheila.

Sheila Smith:

Because we have restricted our ability to offer entry or market access to countries of the region, which is exactly what they want. They want to engage in trade with us. They want to make sure that the real currency of economic influence, which is trade and access to trade, is what the Americans are investing with. But we have stepped back from the Transpacific Partnership, as we used to know, it's a multilateral trade deal in the region that started in the Bush administration actually, but then was concluded at the end of the Obama administration. President Trump, as we remember, pulled back in the first hundred days of his time in office, said, we will not participate in that initiative. And Japan is there, of course, as are many of the more advanced economies of the region. There's another trade agreement in the region, the RCEP, which is a Regional Comprehensive Economic Agreement, which is more the countries of varying levels of economic advancement.

Sheila Smith:

But it's sort of the floor, if you will, where TPP or CPTPP, as we call it now, is the ceiling in terms of trade standards. But we're in neither and China is in RCEP, and is knocking at the door of the TPP. And so I think you're seeing a lot of the countries of the region really say to us, if you want in the game in geopolitics in Asia, it's great that you bring hard power and your security relationships are fundamental to peace and stability, but we also need you in the trade game. We need you to be investing in our region. We need you to be trading to offset the enormous economic advantage of China.

Sheila Smith:

So we're not talking about it now, but we just had a summit of ASEAN leaders in Washington this last week. And they were Singapore, Malaysia, they all wanted to talk to the President about this issue of American economic engagement. So I think there's going to be an announcement. I'm not sure exactly how the prioritization is going to come out. I think it's good that it's going to happen in Tokyo, because of course, Japan is a quite welcome partner to pulling us back in economically, so to speak. But I think it's one of the pieces of our Indo-Pacific strategy that will need to have consistent bolstering over the months ahead.

Jim Lindsay:

It's pretty clear that IPEF is all headlines, no details at this point. We know what the buckets are in terms of infrastructure, tax slash corruption issues, supply chain disruptions, things like that. But exactly what will be produced is unclear. Quite right on the no market access. And I think to put it in perspective, these are agreements that the President of the United States is going to negotiate on his own authority. Nothing is going to go up to Capital Hill for approval. So this is not the way TPP would've been handled, the way NAFTA, major trade deals are handled. And as a result, we're actually kind of limited in what can be accomplished. And of course, the reality exists that what one president does by the stroke of the pen, can be undone by a subsequent president with the stroke of the pen. Scott, obviously in Japan, the meeting is going to be with the Quad. South Korea is not part of the Quad. Any chance President Yoon might ask to turn the Quad into the Quint?

Scott Snyder:

Well, I think that President Yoon has already indicated that they're willing to cooperate with, I guess, what could be called the Quad plus. And also just going back, I think that the South Koreans probably recognize that voicing support for the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum is a kind of a no brainer, regardless of whether we know what it is or not at this point, given the focus on strengthening the Alliance relationship with the United States. And so that actually, I think, raises another area, another dimension of economic policy, where the South Koreans have to watch closely how the Quad develops and how IPEF develops because of South Korean interests in supply chain resiliency. And I think that on that issue, the Biden administration really does need to grapple with the question of how do you build together a multilateral public and private sector partnership, in which private sector actors also feel they have a stake. Because that means actually integration as part of a US-led supply chain. And there, I think, that if market access is an obstacle, you have a potentially very serious problem.

Jim Lindsay:

What about it from a competitive point of view, Scott? Japanese companies, South Korean companies compete in a lot of areas. And even putting aside sort of historical memories and disagreements over history and whether appropriate apologies have been rendered or not, how difficult is it to get companies to cooperate or lend support for diplomatic efforts to cooperate in terms of building supply chain resilience?

Scott Snyder:

Well, there you're reminding me that one of the core issues on the economic front between Japan and South Korea was related to Japan's imposition of export controls on precursors that are necessary in order to be able to make semiconductors. And that was a big issue between Japan and South Korea when those export controls were put into place. And it means that basically the framework of supply chain resiliency is also going to have to address how to promote multilateral cooperation, including organizing Japan and South Korea to work with each other in the context of the broader task of achieving that goal.

Jim Lindsay:

Sheila, one of the purposes of the trip obviously is for President Biden to deepen American ties with Seoul and Tokyo. The President, since he came to office, has talked about reinvigorating relations with traditional friends, partners, and allies. So that's the goal of the trip. But sort of hovering over all of this is the fact that the United States is headed into congressional midterm elections, where the conventional wisdom is the Republicans are going to take back one or both houses of Congress. And of course that fuels suspicions, given that Joe Biden is in the either high thirties or low forties in terms of public opinion, that he is going to be a one term president. Now we're getting ahead of ourselves to make any predictions about what's going to happen in the 2024 presidential election. But obviously there is a concern that you might see President Trump's return to office in January 2025 or a candidate who presented a Trump-like foreign policy. To what extent is the fear that Joe Biden represents an aberration rather than a trend, shaping how the Japanese think about these issues?

Sheila Smith:

That's a hard question to answer, but let me give it a couple of layers of response. I think nobody appreciates the complexity of our current era of politics more than our allies. And because they rely on us for this very important Article 5 commitment on the security side, but they also rely on us, as we've talked about, in our economic cooperation with them bilaterally, but also as it extends across the region and the globe. I think there's great sensitivity. I think what you are seeing, or what I'm hearing from the Japanese side of the equation and Australians as well, is that they see this moment in the Biden administration, especially the focus on the Quad, which I'll talk about in just a second, but they see this as a kind of normalization, if you will, of American desire for leadership in the region. To be engaged at the forefront of creating new venues of cooperation, to be reassuring that, not we're back, but that we are engaged as global partners with you not only on Indo-Pacific challenges, namely China, but also the current war in Ukraine.

Sheila Smith:

So I think there's a kind of relief that we are engaged, that the traction is there, that we are leading, that the alliances matter, and that they are being put first and foremost on the agenda. But as you noticed, as you pointed out, we've got midterms in November, which obviously affects our trade agenda and anything economic. We will have more kind of bickering, I suspect. And we've already started to see it happening on the question of are we doing enough in Ukraine or are we doing too much in Ukraine? So you'll see that piece of the puzzle. So the alliances and our stakes in the alliances, are likely, I think, to come back after the midterm elections in the Congress.

Sheila Smith:

And the president of course will have more time doing anything, after our midterms, because there's a wide expectation that the Republicans will have the upper hand, at least in the House. And that means that there's a President who's going to be fighting a lot at home, and not, maybe, is able to do things on the global stage. But just, we've skipped over the Quad because we got enthusiastic about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, but the Quad, for our listeners, includes another very important ally in the region, which is Australia. And of course, Australia's having an election on May 21st.

Jim Lindsay:

So who is going to show up in Tokyo representing-

Sheila Smith:

We don't know, and that's the reality.

Jim Lindsay:

I should point out that Scott Morrison, the incumbent prime minister, is predicted by the polls to lose, but it is a race that is within the margin of errors. So we will find out whether or not, I think it's an eight or nine year-

Sheila Smith:

Right.

Jim Lindsay:

... by the Australian conservatives comes to an end.

Sheila Smith:

That's right. It's neck in neck. And they're smaller parties in Australia that voters are starting to turn to as well. So if you could see either a conservative victory or a labor victory, and a conservative would be the incumbent. Labor as a party has endorsed the Indo-Pacific approach of the Quad. So there's no doubt that a prime minister will show up in Tokyo, but we don't know who it is yet, and may not have a cabinet in place. So this may be the very first thing, if it is a new person in power, this will be the very first thing they do. Is get on an airplane and go to Tokyo to meet with the United States President, the Indian Prime Minister, and the Japanese Prime Minister.

Sheila Smith:

So our democracies have elections, and these elections then affect the way in which we can participate in these strategic structures. So I think that's an important thing to keep in mind. These are not static arrangements. These are evolving arrangements. The last piece on the Quad, Jim, is that as you know, India has not been willing to come out and criticize Russia or join the sanctions against Russia. India has a very important military relationship with Russia in that it imports a lot of its military equipment from Russia. So this will come up in the press briefings, if nothing else. There will be questions for Prime Minister Modi about his position on Russian aggression. And so there's, these things are hovering a little bit over the Quad meeting itself.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, they certainly will be. Scott, I want to give you a chance to address the question of how South Koreans are thinking about whether or not Joe Biden can't institutionalize his approach to the region. Particularly since you noted earlier on that South Korea has, for a long time, tried to avoid choosing between China, its main economic partner, and the United States, its main security guarantor. Making a choice becomes all the harder if you're concerned that your security guarantor may not be interested in playing that role in the future. And obviously, during the Trump presidency, there was a lot of friction in the relationship over the question of US troops in South Korea, issues of host country support and the like.

Scott Snyder:

Well, I think the Yoon administration is going to be all in on trying to work with the United States, and is going to be more overt in its desire to hedge against Chinese growing influence in the region. I think that Yoon, if indeed Biden faces divided government, Yoon is one shoulder that he can commiserate on. It actually generates an interesting challenge in South Korea, in that implicit in Yoon's bet on relations with Washington is a set of expectations for what the Biden administration can do for Seoul. And in the context of divided government or in the context of a turn in a different direction, it's those questions that end up being magnified for the South Korean public. Is the US as reliable as our current president thinks they, as they will be?

Jim Lindsay:

I want to close by asking about one place we haven't mentioned at all, but which I imagine is going to be in at least some of the conversations that are going to be had this week by President Biden. And that is Taiwan. And perhaps you give me a sense, Scott, about how the Yoon administration thinks about the Taiwan issue. Is it leaning forward, leaning backward, ducking, or something else?

Scott Snyder:

I don't think that we know yet, in specific terms. The Moon-Biden joint statement mentioned the importance of peace across the Taiwan Straits. And I don't know, at this point, what specifically the fledgling Yoon administration might have in mind on that, including their possible openness to quiet contingency planning discussions, as related to the possibility of a Taiwan contingency. What we can say is that Yoon has been full throated in his support for freedom. The other issue that we still have, that still has to play out, is how Yoon actually manages his strategy towards China. Right now, he has a positive sum approach to China based on mutual respect, but it's not at all clear that China and South Korea are thinking the same things when they're talking about mutual respect. So figuring out what stability looks like in the China-South Korea relationship under the Yoon administration is the next chapter to be determined.

Jim Lindsay:

It would not surprise me if Beijing's view of the bilateral relationship is more zero sum than positive sum, Scott. Sheila, just from your vantage point, how is the Japanese government, Prime Minister Kishida thinking about the Taiwan issue?

Sheila Smith:

So the diplomatic language, Jim, is the same. It is Japan. And during the summit meeting last spring, then Prime Minister Suga and President Biden noted the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits, and how important that was for both countries. The diplomacy has also been something Japan has been quietly active on. I think you may remember that the G7 countries also endorsed a statement that included reference to peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits. You are seeing Japan now, as it works with NATO allies, obviously through the G7 on the sanctions issue, but quietly now increasingly present in NATO meetings. For the first time the Japanese foreign minister was asked to join the NATO foreign ministers meeting, and Prime Minister Kishida has been invited to the June NATO summit. I'm not sure he's going yet, but this is another quiet integration, right, of Indo-Pacific with European allies.

Sheila Smith:

And again, here, you're starting to see European leaders. German chancellor was in Tokyo lately. The UK foreign minister, open statements about free and peaceful relations across the Taiwan Straits, but also more direct statements about aggression, potential aggression by China, against Taiwan. So Japan has been quite forthright on the diplomatic front, in shoring up and advocating for shoring up global support for Taiwan.

Sheila Smith:

Economically, you see the Japanese have invited the well known semiconductor company TSMC to open a factory in Japan. So you're starting to see the economic security dimensions of that reflected in the Japan-Taiwan relationship. And of course, as Scott referenced on the contingency planning on the military side, this is something that our two governments will probably initiate a fairly sophisticated consultation on. Our militaries, for people who don't know the region well, Taiwan is within a couple of hundred kilometers or 150 miles of Japan's southern most islands. It is very close to the southern islands of Japan. So Japan's military, our bases in Okinawa, the our being the United States military base in Okinawa, are very proximate to where the Chinese are operating. Should there be a conflict, obviously both United States and Japanese militaries would see that as critical to the defense of Japan, as well as to the defense of Taiwan. So there's already exercising ongoing, but a formal contingency plan, to this date, has not been seen as a priority, but I suspect that we will move in that direction fairly shortly.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guests have been Sheila Smith CFR's John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies. And Scott Snyder, CFR senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on US-Korea policy. Sheila and Scott, thanks a lot for taking us on a tour of the issues affecting the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Sheila Smith:

Thank you, Jim.

Scott Snyder:

Thank you.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen. And leave us a review, to help us get noticed and improve the show. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation, on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org.

Jim Lindsay:

As always opinions expressed on The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or a guest, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go to Margaret Gatch for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

 

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