Washington (AFP), May 19 – President Joe Biden left for South Korea and Japan on Thursday to cement US leadership in Asia at a time when the White House’s attention has shifted to Russia and Europe – and amid fears of a North Korean nuclear test during his trip.
Biden wants the trip to build on recent moves accelerating a years-long U.S. pivot to Asia, where China’s growing commercial and military power is undermining Washington’s dominance.
But underscoring Europe’s competing demands, Biden met just before his departure with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to celebrate their demands for NATO membership – a seismic development sparked by the invasion of Ukraine. by Russia.
Biden’s first trip to Asia as president is also overshadowed by fears that North Korea’s unpredictable leaders will choose the moment to attract attention with a test of its nuclear-capable missiles or even an experimental explosion.
Despite a spiraling Covid outbreak, “Pyongyang’s preparations for a nuclear test are complete and they are only looking for the right moment,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by the agency. spying on Seoul.
US intelligence also says there is a “real possibility” North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could stage the “provocation” after Biden arrived in Seoul on Friday night, a senior US official said.
Biden will travel to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will meet with leaders of both countries and attend a regional summit of the Quad – a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States – in Tokyo.
In the first leg, he will visit American and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified border known as the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, it said. the White House.
Hours before Biden’s arrival, newly elected and strongly pro-American South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a warm welcome, tweeting “A mountain shows its way to the top for those who seek it.” I am confident that the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights will only rise in the future.
– Course in Taiwan? –
During a briefing to reporters on Wednesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden was heading to Asia with “the wind at his back” after the success of American leadership in the Western response to the invasion. of Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin, which has now lasted almost three months.
The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to seize control of democratically-ruled Taiwan, even if it means going to war. .
Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing was watching “carefully”.
“I think they were struck by how the transatlantic alliance, in particular, came together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of this aggression,” he said.
Sullivan said the administration doesn’t want to confront China on the trip so much as to use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners won’t be divided and weakened.
He pointed to the cooperation of South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the United States. He also discussed Britain’s role in the recently created AUKUS security partnership.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it’s not a negative message and it’s not targeting any particular country.”
– North Korean wild card –
Officials say North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a wildcard of the trip.
Sullivan said it’s possible North Korea, which has defied UN sanctions by conducting a series of nuclear-capable missile tests this year, could use Biden’s visit to slash the rattle.
That could mean “further missile testing, long-range missile testing, or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading up to, during, or after the president’s trip,” he said.
The Biden administration is ready to “make short-term and long-term adjustments to our military posture” in response.
Sullivan said the situation was being “closely” coordinated with South Korea and Japan and he also discussed the matter with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday.