TOKYO — Joe Biden spent his first trip to Asia as president strengthening economic and military commitments. He pushed new rules for the global economy and promoted democracy in launching a new trade pact. And he summoned fellow Indo-Pacific leaders to do more in defense of Ukraine even if it causes their people some economic pain.
The president was, in short, promoting the types of values abroad of greater economic investment, cooperation and democratic principles that he has struggled to sell to voters in the U.S.
“The future of the 21st century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific and our region,” Biden said hopefully as he launched a new trade deal called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
It was one of the brighter moments of the five-day trip, which took him to South Korea and then Japan. The trade framework got buy-in from a dozen Pacific leaders including some, like Japan’s Fumio Kishida, who would prefer the United States rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal that Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2017.
But Biden’s big moment on trade ended up being overshadowed — by Biden himself, when he went off-script on the sensitive matter of Taiwan.
Biden grabbed global headlines by responding “yes” when asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China invaded. The president went on to say a Chinese invasion, while unlikely, would “dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger. “
The president later insisted he hadn’t signaled any change in U.S. policy by opening the door to military intervention. But the moment demonstrated that he has changed the tone of U.S. policy, showing a willingness to be more proactive against possible threats to allies in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
“It seems to me that his statement was not some sort of ‘gaffe’ but rather Biden working toward a policy of forward-leaning strategic ambiguity with attitude, as a means of both deterring China and reassuring Taiwan and U.S. allies such as Japan,” said Kurt Tong, a former U.S. diplomat who is now a partner at The Asia Group. “This is basically the same policy, but with a stronger emphasis on deterrence rather than reassurance toward China — made necessary by the situation in Ukraine.”
Biden showed his tilt toward stronger foreign policy rhetoric again at Tuesday’s meeting of the informal Indo-Pacific security coalition known as the Quad, made up of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Biden told fellow leaders they were navigating “a dark hour in our shared history” due to Russia’s war on Ukraine and he urged the group to make greater efforts to stop Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
The message appeared especially intended for Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy. Unlike other Quad countries and nearly every other U.S. ally, India has not imposed sanctions or even condemned Russia, its biggest supplier of military hardware.
Later, at the start of a one-on-one meeting with Modi, Biden said he and the Indian premier discussed how the U.S. and India would “continue consulting closely on how to mitigate these negative effects” of the invasion.
Modi paid no mind to Biden’s aspirational statement. The Indian leader said nothing about Russia and Ukraine, instead focusing his remarks on a litany of trade and investment priorities for New Delhi.
All of this played out for Biden against the backdrop of growing discontent at home, where inflation, baby formula shortages, political discord and more are roiling the landscape in the leadup to midterm elections that could well cost the Democrats control of Congress.
There are early signs that Americans’ attitudes about punishing Russia with sanctions are evolving as surging costs for gas, groceries, and other needs have strained budgets for millions of people.
Now 45 percent of U.S. adults say the nation’s bigger priority should be sanctioning Russia as effectively as possible, while slightly more — 51 percent — say the priority should be limiting damage to the U.S. economy, a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows.