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On Asia Trip, Biden Administration Seeks To Restore Alliances


Immigration is just one area where the Biden administration is trying to chart a new course. Another is foreign policy more broadly, where President Biden has signaled he intends to nurture and repair alliances that were left strained by his predecessor. This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are traveling on just such a mission to Japan and South Korea. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, Washington needs the help of its allies to tackle some big challenges in the region.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Some of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked ahead of this trip. The Biden administration has reassured allies of the U.S.'s commitment to defend them. It's also reached agreements with Japan and South Korea on sharing the costs of basing U.S. troops in their countries, which was a source of friction under the Trump administration. Allies are relieved to hear Biden say America is back, says Jihwan Hwang, a professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Seoul.

JIHWAN HWANG: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "It's well-received partly because it's just rhetoric for the short term," he says. "Long term, they'll have to show actual policies, and implementing them will involve challenges." One challenge will be getting Seoul and Tokyo to put aside their long-running feud over history, including Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonization of Korea. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in recently expressed willingness to cooperate with Japan. Seoul also said it's willing to consider joining Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. in a grouping known as the Quad. But Kuyoun Chung, a political scientist at Kangwon National University, says that mending fences with Tokyo might not have been Moon's idea.

KUYOUN CHUNG: The olive branch that South Korea delivered to Japan is because of the pressure from the United States to reactivate trilateral cooperation between United States, Japan and South Korea.

KUHN: The Biden administration wants to coordinate with allies about reviving stalled nuclear negotiations with North Korea and competing with China. But the allies face difficulties of their own at home. In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in is in his last year in office. Brad Glosserman is deputy director of the Tama University Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo. He notes that Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been dogged by political scandals and preoccupied with the pandemic and the Olympics.

BRAD GLOSSERMAN: All of it leaves him as a prime minister who probably isn't going to be able to match whatever forward-leaning attempts that the United States might have to move the alliance.

KUHN: All of this means the higher-hanging fruit the Biden administration is really after will be harder to reach, such as slowing the decline of U.S. power relative to China, and with it, the U.S.'s ability to guarantee the liberal order in Asia. Kuyoun Chung says it's something mid-sized powers like South Korea would like to help with.

KUYOUN: The middle powers are willing to coordinate their actions to resist the decline of liberal order.

KUHN: University of Seoul's Jihwan Hwang says Seoul is ramping up cooperation with Washington to try to get it to focus on diplomacy with North Korea. Seoul worries, though, he says, that the Biden administration will have its hands full with other priorities.

JIHWAN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If that happens," he says, "then it's possible that Biden will repeat the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience." "Strategic patience," he says, "could just mean running out the clock and leaving the issue to the next U.S. administration." And there's no telling at this point who that could be. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVO TO ME'S "MND WRKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.