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Asia security in focus as Biden visits South Korea, Japan

US President Joe Biden is aiming to boost ties with East Asian allies to face down a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly expansionist China.

US President Joe Biden waves, Air Force One in the background

North Korea's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction will likely dominate discussions in both capitals

US President Joe Biden is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, although administration officials admit they are concerned North Korea will attempt to overshadow the visit with the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile or even an underground nuclear test.

Biden is expected to discuss the security situation in Northeast Asia during his three-day visit, as well as ways to potentially engage with North Korea, the growing challenges posed by an increasingly expansionist China and a new regional economic agreement.

The US leader is due to travel on to Tokyo on Sunday for bilateral discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and a summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which brings together Japan, the US, Australia and India.

North Korea's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction will likely dominate discussions in both capitals.

Anticipated missile test 

Addressing a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said North Korea is likely to carry out a long-range missile test or what would be its seventh nuclear test at any time in the next few days.

"We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or Japan," Sullivan said.

A map showing the range of North Korea's missiles

North Korea has already launched 16 missiles so far this year, many in the run-up to South Korea's general election in March.

Analysts have said the regime of Kim Jong Un sought to intimidate the incoming South Korean president, and wants to remain at the forefront of the US president's thinking.

"Regional security is going to be the main issue when Biden and Yoon meet," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul. 

"There are concerns about the North's nuclear and missile capabilities and it would not surprise me at all if they did decide to carry out a test while Biden is in Japan, to act as a show of strength," she told DW. "Biden will be very keen to improve cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan."

A regional economic agreement in the works?

Biden is also expected to seek dialogue with the North and he will meet former South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During the early stages of his five years in power, Moon built a reasonable working relationship with Kim in Pyongyang, including brokering two summits for the North Korean leader with then-President Donald Trump.

That relationship chilled after the collapse of the February 2019 summit in Hanoi, but Biden apparently hopes that out of office, Moon may be able to resurrect some form of communication with Kim.

Watch video 02:43

North Korea 'one step closer to hitting the US'

Another area of discussion between Yoon and Biden will be trade, with the Korean leader expected to announce that his nation will be a founder member of the US-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an alliance of regional partners designed to strengthen supply chains, improve infrastructure and support efforts toward clean energy, decarbonization and fair trade.

The pact is widely seen as a parallel effort to regional security alliances designed to limit China's aggressive expansionist moves in the region. 

Japan is also expected to underline its support for the pact when Biden arrives in Tokyo on Sunday, although Prime Minister Kishida does have some concerns about overlap with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Tokyo worked hard to develop after Trump withdrew the US from its predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in 2017. 

Security is the main concern

Yet Tokyo's primary concern is the same as that of Seoul: security.

"The main reason for Biden's visit to the region is the Quad meeting in Tokyo and there have already been reports that the statement at the end of the talks will include a commitment to joint deterrence of China's expansion aims in the region," said James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

Watch video 56:18

Taiwan: China's next target?

"Russia's war in Ukraine has really served to highlight nations' concerns about China and how authoritarian, revisionist powers can take reckless decisions," he said.

The fear in Northeast Asia is that Beijing might make an equally reckless attempt to seize Taiwan by force, a conflict that would cause massive loss of life, huge amounts of material damage and further throw the global economy into turmoil.

"I am also expecting the US to reaffirm its commitment to protect Japan under its nuclear umbrella and calls for ensuring stability in the Taiwan Strait," Brown added.

Quad members not on the same page?

Discussions in the Quad, however, will not be plain sailing. While the US, Japan and Australia are fully committed to providing assistance to Ukraine and have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, India has not followed suit.

Instead, New Delhi has stepped up purchases of Russian energy. Although it is looking to diversify the sources of its weapons imports, India continues to be heavily reliant on Russian military equipment. 

"It does appear that India is not on the same page as the others when it comes to Russia, but I expect the Quad members to paper over the cracks and emphasize their commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region while avoiding specific comments on Russia," Brown said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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