As he
concluded his debut tour of Asia, President Joe Biden used Russia’s invasion of
Ukraine to send an unmistakable message to China: A similar breach of international order would
generate a fierce US response.

Speaking to a high-level summit here of Indo-Pacific leaders,
Biden underscored the grave consequences of a war that continues to grind
forward, despite withering sanctions from a mostly-united West. The message,
delivered in a region watching closely for signals of how the US may respond to
aggression from China, was one of resolve.

“We’re navigating a dark hour in our shared history,”
Biden said as he sat facing the leaders of India, Australia, and Japan.

Biden warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is
“trying to extinguish a culture,” pointing to Russia’s targeting of
Ukrainian schools, churches, and museums. And he said the conflict had touched
the entire world.

“This is more than just a European issue,” he said.
“It’s a global issue.”

The war in Ukraine
served as an uneasy backdrop to Biden’s trip in Asia, which ended Tuesday when
Air Force One departed Japan to begin the lengthy journey home. The conflict
has consumed his time and attention, even as he worked to reaffirm his goal of
reorienting US foreign policy toward the Pacific.

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At the same time,
Biden is hopeful the US-led response to the war — which has included partners
like Japan and South Korea, which he visited this week — and Russia’s stumbles
on the battlefield will be viewed as a cautionary tale in Beijing.

Biden attempts to
clean up his warning to China over Taiwan

On Monday, Biden offered his most explicit warning to China,
saying the US would be willing to respond militarily if the country invades the
self-governing island of Taiwan. Biden’s statement loomed over his final day in
Tokyo, where he was meeting with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia as
part of a revitalized Quad Leaders’ Summit.

While acknowledging the
US still agrees with the “One China” policy, Biden said on Monday
that the idea of Taiwan being taken by force “is (just not) appropriate.”

A day later, Biden told
reporters the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” had not changed. But
he did not offer any qualifications on his earlier statement, saying only the
US stance remains the same.

“The policy has not
changed at all and I stated that when I made my statement,” Biden said at
an event with Quad leaders.

Several of Biden’s top
administration officials had been caught off-guard by the remarks on Monday,
multiple aides told CNN, adding that they were not expecting Biden to be so
unequivocal. The White House quickly downplayed Biden’s comments, saying they
don’t reflect a change in US policy. It’s the third time in recent months —
including during a CNN town hall in October — that Biden has said the US would
protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, only to have the White House walk back
those remarks.

Under the “One
China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of
China but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the self-governing
island of 23 million. The US provides Taiwan defensive weapons but has remained
intentionally ambiguous on whether it would intervene militarily in the event
of a Chinese attack.

China angered by
Biden’s Taiwan comment

Tensions between Beijing
and Taipei are at the highest they’ve been in recent decades, with the Chinese
military sending record numbers of warplanes near the island.

Biden’s comments quickly
caught the Chinese government’s attention, with China expressing its
“strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to Biden’s comments,
saying it will not allow any external force to interfere in its “internal
affairs.”

“On issues
concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core
interests, there is no room for compromise,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman
for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“We urged the US
side to earnestly follow the One China principle … be cautious in words and
deeds on the Taiwan issue, and not send any wrong signal to pro-Taiwan
independence and separatist forces — so it won’t cause serious damage to the
situation across the Taiwan Strait and China-US relations.”

China’s Taiwan Affairs
Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian added, “We urge the US to stop saying or
doing anything in violation of the One China principle and the three China-US
Joint Communiqués. … Those who play with fire will certainly burn
themselves.”

A revitalized Quad
draws Beijing’s ire

Beijing has also
criticized the Quad grouping as an “Indo-Pacific NATO,” accusing it
of “trumpeting the Cold War mentality” and “stoking geopolitical
rivalry.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s
talks, a senior US administration official stressed the grouping is not a
formal alliance bloc, without a central secretariat or headquarters.

“The goal here is
not to create a lot of formal structures. The goal is to find ways to work
together on issues that are of interest to the region,” the official said,
adding it was too soon to discuss expanding the grouping beyond the four
current participants.

Still, Biden and the
other leaders unveiled new initiatives on maritime information sharing, Covid
vaccines and climate as part of their meeting. And Biden’s aides view the Quad
as a critical component to a foreign policy strategy that puts heavy emphasis
on cultivating relationships in Asia.

“I think that we’ve
all been impressed how comfortable the leaders are with each other and how
comfortable they are having very, very serious conversations,” the
official said.

Biden also met
individually with India and Australia’s Prime Ministers Tuesday before
returning to Washington. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese became Australia’s
leader only days ago, and US officials have been cheered by his willingness to
make his first order of business the Quad summit.

“I don’t know how
you’re doing it,” Biden told his new counterpart.

Talks with India’s
Narendra Modi were likely to be more fraught as he resists US pressure to
condemn Russia for its war in Ukraine. India relies of Moscow for the majority
of its arms purchases, a historical partnership that it is reluctant to break.

At the start of the
meeting, Biden said he and Modi would discuss the effect the war has had
“on the entire global world order.”

“The US and India
are going to continue consulting closely on how to mitigate these negative
effects,” Biden said.

Biden works on
revitalizing alliances in Asia on first trip to the Indo-Pacific

The President has spent
his trip to Asia meeting with South Korean and Japanese leaders, discussing a potential ramp-up of joint
military drills with South Korea and unveiling the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — a
long-sought economic agenda among 13 nations.

The visit comes later in
Biden’s presidency than he might have liked, according to officials, who say
Covid restrictions and the pull of other crises made it difficult to schedule a
trip. He is the third US president in a row to attempt a foreign policy refocus
on Asia, though intervening events have often gotten in the way.

Despite the focus on
Ukraine, officials say Biden remains intent on realigning US
foreign policy toward the challenges of the next decades
. That
includes, most urgently, building the type of alliance structure in Asia that
already exists among transatlantic allies and has formed a mostly united
bulwark against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Yet there is not
currently an Asian equivalent to NATO, which has provided critical structure to
the Western response to Russia’s aggression. And China has been working hard
over the past years to cultivate countries in the region as it flexes its
regional power.

Biden has taken several
steps to counter those moves — revitalizing the Quad; sharing, for the first
time, sensitive US nuclear-armed submarine technology with Australia; and last
week hosting a summit of Southeast Asian leaders at the White House to discuss
trade and security.

Yet it’s far from clear
those steps have done much to contain China’s ambitions. And some analysts have
pointed to parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears over the
future of Taiwan.

va

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2022-05-24

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