US President-elect Joe Biden had his initial calls with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the evening of Wednesday, 11 November. However brief, these preliminary calls nevertheless reveal important hints about how the incoming US administration will approach a region that the president-elect has signaled will be a major priority for his administration’s foreign policy agenda.
Most notable in the readouts released by the president-elect’s transition team is that in all three calls, Biden stressed the importance of cooperation to confront global challenges, including combating Covid-19 and preventing future pandemics; promoting global economic recovery; confronting climate change; and protecting democracy around the world. During the campaign, Biden argued for the need to restore US alliances, particularly with leading democracies. From these calls, it is clear that he is not only prepared to look to US allies in Asia to counter China’s military might but also sees them as indispensable partners for managing transnational issues.
On the whole, these congratulatory calls revealed few specifics about the incoming administration’s policies. The readout of Biden’s call with Morrison makes no mention of Australia’s worsening trade dispute with China. The South Korea readout, meanwhile, only mentions North Korea among several “shared challenges,” offering few hints of how his administration will handle Seoul’s demands for engagement with Pyongyang even as a new round of North Korean provocations is widely expected. The Moon administration has reportedly used high-level contact with the president-elect and his team to persuade him to use summit-level diplomacy to pursue denuclearization with North Korea and also wants the incoming administration’s backing for Moon’s pursuit of an “end-of-war” declaration as part of negotiations with Pyongyang.
The notable exception is that the readout of Biden’s call with Suga referred to “U.S. commitments under Article V” of the US-Japan security treaty, which, as the prime minister made clear to the press after the call, was a restatement of the US commitment to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and China claims. This is not a new position for the US government: the Obama administration, including President Barack Obama himself, repeatedly stated this position, and the Trump administration also embraced it. The inclusion of this statement in the readout, only days after Biden was declared the victor in the presidential election, highlights the importance both allies place on establishing deterrence in the East China Sea amidst Tokyo’s anxieties about a potential bid by China to seize control of the disputed islands as a fait accompli. This statement was likely included also to reassure the Suga administration that, despite vague concerns in Tokyo about the possibility that a Biden administration could seek a strategic “reset” with Beijing, Japan will not be slighted. Beijing greeted the statement by reiterating its claim to the islands as China’s “inherent territory” and calling the US-Japan alliance a cold war relic.
Wednesday’s call could be followed by a visit to the US by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to make contact with members of the president-elect’s team, and discussions are already underway for Suga to visit Washington in late January or early February, shortly after Biden’s inauguration, for their first summit meeting.