How the war in Ukraine is challenging the long-sought pivot to Asia
President Biden will spend five days in Asia — his first trip to the continent since taking office. He departs for South Korea on Thursday and will then continue on to Japan. Both countries have been vital allies in the United States' effort to compete with China, but they've also proved valuable in holding Russia accountable for its aggression in Ukraine.
Biden, like presidents before him, entered the White House with the mission of reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. He reportedly has about three times as many people working on the Indo-Pacific as he does on other regions of the globe.
The ultimate goal is to counter China, even if that is sometimes left unsaid publicly. But between the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, that goal seems to have, at times, taken a backseat. Experts say Russia's invasion of Ukraine has posed one of the biggest hurdles to Biden's foreign policy agenda, but it's also presented the president with an opportunity to reinforce alliances, not just across the Atlantic, but also across the Pacific.
"After Russia invaded Ukraine, the administration was very quick to enlist our allies and partners in East Asia ... to sanction Russia and to isolate them diplomatically," said Evan Medeiros, who led Asia policy under former President Barack Obama.
Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and Japan are now all partners in the international coalition to punish Russia for its behavior.
"Korea is closely aligned with the U.S. and the global coalition to put export control measures and economic sanctions against Russia's military aggression," Yeo Han-koo, the South Korean trade minister, said in a statement in early March. In fact, experts say if the U.S. had acted on its own, export controls put in place wouldn't have made much of an impact on Russia, but the support of Asian countries who manufacture key technology has been critical.
Michael Green, who worked on Asia policy in the National Security Council under George W. Bush, says Ukraine has shown that when allies in Asia and allies in Europe unite, they can impose a devastating cost.
"What Ukraine has demonstrated is the United States, and only the United States, has the ability to mobilize an international coalition of the most powerful democracies and economies to punish aggressors," he added.
That requires not just U.S. investment, but the willingness of allies to join forces. This Asia-Europe-U.S. coalescence is relatively recent.
In previous decades, Japan in particular has been reluctant to needle Russia.
"In 2014, in Crimea, Japan was not aligned despite it being a member of the G7," said Sheila Smith, an expert on Japanese politics with the Council on Foreign Relations. "It was certainly not aligned on the sanctions piece."
Despite Japan's unwillingness to provoke Russia during its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, this time Japan's leaders have taken a leading role in responding.
"What very early on in this crisis was impressive to me is Prime Minister Kishida defined this not as a European war but as a challenge to the global order," Smith said.
And one reason, experts say, has nothing to do with Russia — it's about a neighbor in Asia's own backyard.
"In recent years, we've seen increasing bullying by China," Green said. "Our Asian allies are watching ... there's concern that the United States doesn't have the bandwidth to handle crises in both Europe and Asia at the same time."
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the White House dispatched a delegation of former and defense and national security — including Green and Medeiros — to Taiwan to reassure the self-governed democratic island off the Chinese coast. China has vowed to unify the two and hasn't ruled out force to do so.
Experts say the Ukraine crisis has accelerated a nascent relationship that was already developing between Europe, the U.S., Asia, and Australia to counter China.
"When I worked on the rebalance, or pivot, in the Obama administration, one of the major challenges, I would say mistakes, that were made was a sense that we were somehow pivoting away from Europe," said Kurt Campbell, the Biden official in charge of the Indo-Pacific region, in a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Nowadays, he said, there's a sense of collaboration with Europe to take on the challenges in Asia. Experts point to AUKUS — the security pact established between the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia last September to share nuclear submarine technology — as a prime example of working across the Atlantic and the Pacific.
"I spend more of my time engaging with European partners around various initiatives in the Indo-Pacific almost than I do with Indo-Pacific partners," Campbell added.
But the War in Ukraine has also posed major challenges to the administration. It has taken up headspace and resources from a president with finite time.
On Feb. 11, two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, the administration released its Indo-Pacific strategy. And now, in the midst of the ongoing war, on the same day the president meets with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to discuss their desire to join NATO, he'll fly out to Asia.
The juxtaposition of these events shows the dilemma but also the opportunity for Biden.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday the White House doesn't see it as tension, but as "mutually reinforcing."
"There's a certain level of integration and symbiosis in the strategy we are pursuing in Europe and the strategy we're pursuing in the Indo-Pacific. And President Biden's unique capacity to actually stitch those two together is going to be a hallmark of his foreign policy presidency," Sullivan said.
Still, a key question is whether this transatlantic-transpacific bond is a temporary side effect of Russia's invasion or a long lasting realignment. And no doubt, there are cracks in the the relationship. On this trip to Asia, Biden will meet with India, a partner that has been unwilling to join the U.S. in punishing Russia.
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