South Korean President Moon Jae-in is visiting the White House on Friday, the second foreign leader who United States President Joe Biden has welcomed to Washington since taking office. On the agenda is likely to be the global semiconductor chip shortage that’s paralysing the US auto industry as well as China’s dominance in the region.
Moon’s visit follows an April summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — and if the new administration’s choice of opening acts seems stage-managed, that’s no accident, say experts.
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“It’s clear that the Biden administration is focused on strategic competition with China as a primary foreign policy objective, or as a primary frame for thinking about the challenges it faces in the world,” Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea policy programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera. “It was very intentional that it opened its foreign policy approach in that way.”
The two visits from Asian heads of state come on the heels of an early March virtual meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, India, Australia and Japan — a meeting which was also designed to present a united front to China’s growing global influence.
Later in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited South Korea and Japan before holding a tense meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska.
That meeting included frank discussions on thorny issues including human rights abuses committed against the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang, a crackdown against democratic protesters in Hong Kong, repression in Tibet, sabre-rattling against Taiwan and cyberattacks on the US.
Biden is also looking to bring allies back into the fold after the brash diplomacy of the Trump era, which saw Japan pushed away through tariffs and tweets about a weak yen and both Japan and South Korea concerned about former US President Donald Trump’s chumminess with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Biden is also working to bridge gaps between Japan and South Korea, whose relationship is dominated by the former’s colonial past and whose differences had been allowed to fester under Trump.
All of these meetings are designed to send a message to Beijing — and quickly, said Ryan Hass, chair of the foreign policy programme at the Brookings Institution and senior fellow at its Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
“I don’t think it came as any surprise to Beijing that the Biden administration would prioritise efforts to repair alliance relationships, but the speed and the substance at which these efforts are moving forward, I think, has exceeded Beijing’s expectations,” Hass told Al Jazeera.
But China is unlikely to be surprised by what comes from the meeting, and “expects exactly what’s happened in the past”, said Einar Tangen, a Chinese political and economic affairs commentator.
“Biden will press Moon on a number of issues – going against China, perhaps joining the Quad, issuing a statement about human rights, et cetera,” Tangen told Al Jazeera.
But, Tangen said, it’s unlikely to be “a breakthrough summit” — and Moon will spend much of it walking a delicate balance between strengthening ties with the US and protecting South Korea’s economic relationship with China.
In the past, Seoul has struck that balance with what Snyder calls a “choice avoidance strategy”.
“The US sees South Korea as a like-minded country, a democracy, a security ally… which basically means the US thinks South Korea has already made a choice,” Snyder explained. “Basically what they have been doing is to cooperate under the surface with the US but not necessarily publicly. They’re like a student that aces the written exam but is deeply afraid of class participation.”
To me, the more significant feature is the misalignment of political clocks. President Moon is not able to run for re-election and his term expires next year, while President Biden’s term has just begun. Moon feels a sense of great urgency to lock in his legacy ... seeking lasting peace with North Korea.
But South Korea isn’t just worried about a teacher’s red ink; they also need to stay in the black with their largest trading partner. South Korea exported $132.5bn worth of its goods to China in 2020, almost double the $74bn worth of goods it exports to the US.
Falling in lockstep with the US could therefore damage South Korea’s own economic interests.
This is a very real fear as China has a track record of weaponising its huge market to meet its political goals; in fact, the impact of the neighbours’ last trade spat – triggered by an agreement in 2016 by then-President Park Geun-hye to install a US anti-missile battery on South Korean soil – are still being felt by Korean businesses after China largely boycotted Korean brands and cultural products.
The fact that South Korea is a key semiconductor supplier at a time when there is a global chip shortage should give it more leverage with both the US and China.
The US is also set to hold another virtual semiconductor chip shortage meeting this week with South Korea’s chip-producing giant, Samsung, along with US and Taiwanese firms. The Biden administration has reiterated its desire to guarantee supply chain resilience, illustrating the US’s need to draw South Korean companies into closer partnerships.
But given the high-tech chips’ more strategic applications, including in the defence industry, Washington’s more hawkish voices may call for the likes of Samsung to stop doing some of its business with China completely.
“The South Korean government’s position has been that it’s up to the companies themselves – which contrasts with the Australian or Japanese approach to US requests to curtail relationships with Chinese providers like Huawei,” Snyder explained.
“On one hand, we’re talking about Samsung losing a pretty significant customer in Huawei, but on the other hand, it has an opportunity to align itself in an area of expanding business opportunity with partners or consumers in the US and on the democratic side of the ledge,” he added.
That could mean South Korean firms place a greater emphasis not only on “restricting sales to China, but more so on building production capacity in the US around semiconductors and batteries for electric vehicles,” Hass said.
US production could also allow firms like Samsung to advertise a secure supply chain and potentially score US defence contracts, he added, while letting Biden take a victory lap about creating more jobs domestically — a “two birds, one stone” approach linking his international and domestic agendas.
Despite Trump’s theatrical approach to engaging with Kim Jong Un, his term ended with the peninsula peace process stalled.
Even though Biden’s election is the first time a US Democrat has held office at the same time as a South Korean progressive since the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term, this alignment may not be the fertile ideological ground it seems at first glance, as both sides must prioritise pragmatism and address their own economic and political needs.
There is also the question of timing.
“To me, the more significant feature is the misalignment of political clocks. President Moon is not able to run for re-election and his term expires next year, while President Biden’s term has just begun,” Hass said. “Moon feels a sense of great urgency to lock in his legacy … seeking lasting peace with North Korea.”
It’s clear that the Biden administration is focused on strategic competition with China as a primary foreign policy objective, or as a primary frame for thinking about the challenges it faces in the world.
Biden, on the other hand, has years to work with.
“I’m certain that there will be some efforts on his part to try to make a gesture that will restart it. I don’t know how much Biden is willing to do and what he would ask for in return,” Tangen said.
So far, the US president has made it clear he wants to try a different tack than both of his predecessors.
“The Biden administration provided their initial framing for their approach to North Korea by saying that it’s not the Obama administration’s approach and it’s not the Trump administration’s approach of full-bore presidential-level summitry,” Snyder said.
Instead, Biden is interested in “striking a middle ground,” he added, “between a conservative Japanese government that is highly focused on deterring a hostile North Korea and a progressive South Korean government that is interested in engagement.”
Keeping these two key regional allies content while outflanking China across East Asia will clearly be Biden’s own balancing act.