President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan, his first official Asian outing since he became president, has clearly one target in mind—China. Be it the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) or the Quad summit between the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, the overarching objective is to keep China in check, both militarily and economically.
The purpose has acquired a greater urgency for Biden after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in which China has broadly acquiesced and Beijing’s own threatening posture over Taiwan. On both these fronts, Biden was candid about the U.S. objectives.
“The future of the 21st century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific. It covers more than half the population of the world and 60 % of global GDP,” he said referring to the fact that IPEF consists of India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and some others.
Add to that his rather surprising response to a question about Taiwan. “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons,” he was asked by a journalist. “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden answered without hesitation.
“You are?” the reporter followed up.
“That’s the commitment we made,” he said.
“Look, here’s the situation: We agree with the One China policy; we’ve signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that — that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not a — is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger,” he said.
In the context of Taiwan, it is important to note what Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at his joint news conference with Biden today. “In the summit meeting, it was brought up in our discussions — the situation in the Taiwan Straits. The fundamental position of Japan and the United States was reaffirmed; there is no change. And we asserted the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits, which is fundamental to international order, and peaceful resolution of the Straits issue should be pursued. We reconfirmed that position.
Now, in Asia, we are against any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force in Asia, all the more so because of such a position regarding the situation in Ukraine. We think that a unilateral attempt to change the status quo is impermissible. That’s why we’re cooperating with international cooperation, and we decided to participate in the strong sanctions, and we are providing humanitarian assistance.
In Asia as well, peace and stability must be upheld and defended. In order to defend peace and stability in Asia, we will drastically upgrade and strengthen our defense capability, and the United States is the only ally for Japan,” Kishida said.
For Japan, a country that has remained pacifist in its defense policy for 75 years, it’s prime minister’s assertion that Tokyo will “drastically upgrade and strengthen our defense capability” is quite significant.
Seen together, the IPEF and Biden’s response over Taiwan along with the Quad and China is bound to view this as a gang-up against it even though there are those within these arrangements who also have difficult relationships with Beijing.
Take for instance, India which is the only country among the Quad to share a long border with China with a continuing history of very tense relations and actual military engagements as well as incursions. It is a difficult balancing act for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be a consequential member of the Quad on the one hand and maintain a measure of good neighborliness with China on the other. The fact that India is part of both the Quad and IPEF is not lost on China.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sharpening of the NATO mandate, there are those who think that the Quad could also acquire a dimension somewhat similar to an Asian NATO. Although none of the parties involved has said anything to the effect, the Quad being an Asian NATO has been discussed frequently in other forums. Once again if that happens, India will be in a difficult situation given its history with China.
For New Delhi, the IPEF could be of greater importance than what the Quad might offer in the near terms. The country’s economy has been under serious strain in the last couple of years and it needs a platform like the IPEF to begin to change some of that.