Travel once energized Biden, but Asia trip offers little relief from political woes

On his fifth and final day in Asia, President Biden voiced amazement that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined other leaders in Japan just a day after he was sworn in.

“If you fall asleep while you’re here, it’s OK,” Biden joked to Albanese. “Because I don’t know how you’re doing it.”

Biden, who traveled to 57 countries in eight years as vice president, used to talk about the energy and “passion” he gained from such excursions. But his first trip to Asia since he became president has looked like a slog at times.

A joke he made at a state dinner about William Butler Yeats and the clash between the Irish and British fell flat, drawing crickets from his Korean hosts.

While visiting a Samsung factory, he accidentally addressed South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol by the surname of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in.

And his main economic announcement in Tokyo on Monday, a loosely defined initiative to unite mostly Asian countries, was overshadowed by his unscripted comments that appeared to shift U.S. policy on Taiwan and rattle China.

Biden, 79, is hardly the only one to experience fatigue here. Much of his staff and the reporters who cover him have fallen victim to the 13-hour jet lag.

But Biden is the one in the spotlight, and there is little sense he has been able to use the trip to South Korea and Japan as a reprieve from his political woes at home or, as his staff had hoped, to showcase his domestic agenda on the world stage.

“The trip had very little domestic impact — I would say negligible,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But these were still useful consultations with allies.”

Biden simply showing up in the region, Haass and other experts agreed, served as a reminder to allies and to China that the U.S. is still a player here, despite the administration’s unrelenting attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The administration sees China, which has slowed its economy to combat the coronavirus, as weakened and is hoping to fill in some of the void.

“There’s a new realism because of the backdrop of war in Europe. And after the Trump years, [the trip] reinforced the sense of an alliance-first foreign policy, which is important and welcome,” Haass said.

But the lack of details fleshing out a new Indo-Pacific trade framework left what could have been a signature foreign policy breakthrough unfinished, Haass added: “The trip didn’t resolve the problem that the U.S. presence in Asia still lacks a serious economic component.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the focus on the war in Ukraine have severely limited Biden’s travel. He had only been to six other countries in his first 16 months on the job, though he is scheduled to travel next month to Europe and perhaps the Middle East. Biden, a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long viewed travel as an essential part of governing.

And there were successes on this trip. Japan reaffirmed commitments to increase its military spending as part of a deterrence strategy against North Korea. Biden appeared to be on the same page as Yoon in holding a hard line against North Korea, agreeing in concept to expand joint military exercises that were curtailed under former President Trump.

The Quad, a group of power players designed to counter China that includes the U.S., Australia, Japan and India, managed to strike a united front while meeting in Tokyo despite tension over India’s refusal to condemn Russia. Biden, in a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, spoke out strongly against “Russia’s brutal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine,” even as Modi continued to avoid holding Russia responsible.

But the group’s joint statement included stronger language aimed at China — explicitly stating that members “strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area” — than had ever been agreed to before.

Nevertheless, some of the administration’s specific economic and security goals failed to advance. And melding Biden’s foreign policy agenda with his domestic political themes proved daunting.

“These trips are hard. They should be happy with this on the whole,” said Michael Green, a former Asia-focused National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.

Biden’s biggest economic announcement for the region, a new “framework” with 12 other nations that touch the Pacific and Indian oceans, lacked details or firm commitments to back up such promises as increasing trade and fighting government corruption.

Several of the countries that agreed to participate, including Japan, said they would prefer a more substantial trade pact that would lower tariffs and open markets. But Biden, hemmed in by political opposition on the left and right, has ruled out such a deal.

Getting a dozen countries to sign on showed a broader regional consensus than some thought might be achievable, Green said, even if the path toward making a new Indo-Pacific trade pact a reality is still uncertain.

“The big question mark hanging over this administration, which will not go away, is are these guys going to get serious about economic statecraft or are they just going to cede the field to China?” he said. But, he continued, the broader continuity among leaders — Modi’s neutrality on Ukraine being the one glaring exception — made for a relatively smooth five days abroad.

“American presidents don’t always get leaders in the region who are so well attuned to and closely aligned with their view of the world,” Green said of Yoon, Kishida and Albanese, whose positions on democracy, trade, North Korea and Ukraine all lined up with Biden’s. “These leaders were determined to make Joe Biden look good and make America look strong.”

The trip did not generate the kind of news coverage back home that might improve Biden’s currently low standing with the public.

For instance, there was little assurance that Biden’s other economic announcement — a $5.5-billion Hyundai electric vehicle plant in Georgia — would meet his administration’s political promise to promote union jobs. Georgia is a so-called right-to-work state and most of the corporations that build there see the ability to hire non-union workers as a plus.

And while Biden and Yoon appeared united in confronting North Korea, Biden offered no progress on curtailing Kim Jong Un’s advancing nuclear weapons program, conceding that Kim has rebuffed administration offers to negotiate.

Asked by a reporter whether he had a message for Kim, Biden responded simply “Hello. Period.”

Biden struck a bolder tone when he was asked whether America would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if needed.

“Yes,” Biden responded on Monday. “That’s the commitment we made.”

The comments, at a news conference, left his advisors visibly surprised and sent them scrambling to issue a clarification.

Susan A. Thornton, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, downplayed the remarks and resulting coverage as a “manufactured flap,” and said Biden left Asia having accomplished what he set out to do.

“This is more of a media “gotcha” than anything,” she said. “Yes, we are going to help Taiwan‘s military, if they need it. No, we are not going to say exactly what that means for a hypothetical situation. And we insist that it remain hypothetical.”

While Biden said he was not changing U.S. policy, observers, including the Chinese government, saw it as a shift that could put American troops on the ground. American policy in Taiwan calls for providing the island resources to defend itself against China but not direct U.S. military intervention.

The statement led the international news cycle for 24 hours. And, intended or not, it overshadowed almost every other aspect of Biden’s trip.

Bierman reported from Tokyo and Stokols from Washington.

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