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% of U.S. adults say the nation’s bigger priority should be sanctioning Russia as effectively as possible, while slightly more — 51% — 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.
In March, shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine, a clear majority — 55% — said the bigger priority should be sanctioning Russia as effectively as possible.
The Biden White House is all too aware of the challenges. It kept up of a steady stream of tweets, press releases and announcements during Biden's foreign trip, focusing on efforts to address problems at home. While Biden was in a meeting with the emperor of Japan, his Twitter account was posting details about administration efforts to address the b aby formula shortage.
The trip cemented a broader shift in U.S. policy as the nation copes with the economic chaos that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has sown around the world, including spiking energy prices and food shortages.
Russia cutting off the energy spigot to parts of Europe has compounded the supply chain challenges that emerged during the pandemic, problems that have continued as China — the dominant player in manufacturing — has engaged in strict lockdowns of cities to contain coronavirus outbreaks.
These changes have Biden trying to blaze a new path by proposing a trade partnership that is less about tariffs than rules to promote a stable supply of digital products, information sharing and a strong response to climate change.
Throughout his five days in Asia, the president tried to project a message of U.S. economic strength — he and his staff repeatedly pointing to an report that projects the American economy will grow faster than China's for the first time since 1976. It was a marker that China’s ascendancy — a defining part of the diplomatic calculus for Asian countries — is no longer a sure thing.
Yet Biden faces inflation that is crushing public support in the U.S. and spreading around the world in ways that could be destabilizing. Allies in Europe face drastically higher natural gas and oil costs because of sanctions meant to isolate Putin.
Biden, during an event spotlighting $10 billion worth of planned investment in the U.S. by Hyundai, allowed that the U.S. economy was “been sort of knocked off slightly” because of Russia's war in Ukraine.
As he wrapped up his trip, Biden insisted the world must be steadfast in its support for Ukraine despite the soaring costs to the economy on his watch. He also had a message for fretful Americans, asking for their patience.
“This is going to be a haul,” he said. “This is going to take some time.”