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Biden heads to Asia to reassure allies that China is a still a top priority


President Biden heads to Asia today - his first trip to the region since taking office. He'll stop in South Korea and Japan and meet with several regional leaders. The focus of Biden's trip is to reassure allies that the U.S. is committed to the Indo-Pacific and that China is still a top priority for his administration. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Biden came into office saying his top foreign policy goal was countering China's military and economic ascendency. He wanted to pivot attention and resources from other parts of the world to help bolster alliances in Asia. Biden's administration is not the first to come up with this strategy.

SUSAN THORNTON: Yeah, there's a bit of - I would call it pivot fatigue. You know, we've been talking actually more than 12 years. I would say, going back to even the Bush administration, there was talk about moving more resources to Asia.

NORTHAM: Susan Thornton is a former State Department Asia specialist. She says something always seems to derail plans to pivot to Asia, whether it was 9/11 or wars in the Middle East or, now, Ukraine. Thornton says this leaves Asian allies wondering just how committed the U.S. is to the region.

THRONTON: Their No. 1 trading partner for all of them - literally all of them - is China. You know, they're not really in a position to be totally confident that the U.S. is going to be able to deliver what they might need in a crisis.

NORTHAM: That's what Biden hopes to change. He's had some success on the international stage recently, especially building a coalition against Russia that includes rallying two key Asian nations - Japan and South Korea. Reva Goujon, a China specialist at the Rhodium Group, a research organization, says this is an opportune moment to show the U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time.

REVA GOUJON: The timing here is important for the U.S. to show that it's prioritizing the Indo-Pacific, even as you have a war raging in Europe.

NORTHAM: The priority for the White House on this trip is building solidarity against China. The allies are looking for security and economic assurances from the U.S.

ANDREW MERTHA: I think what they don't want to be put in a position in is to have to choose between the United States and China in terms of the security/economic network of relationships.

NORTHAM: Andrew Merth (ph) is a China specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

MERTHA: I think the best thing that we can do is not put them on the spot but just underscore the benefits of continued engagement with the United States.

NORTHAM: The U.S. is expected to unveil a new economic partnership for the region on this trip, but Goujon says it falls short of offering access to U.S. markets. Goujon says the U.S. needs to provide more economic incentives to entice Asian nations.

GOUJON: The U.S. isn't offering that much, even when it comes to developmental assistance. There's still a lot more room for growth there.

NORTHAM: Still, administration officials say President Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy will be put on full display on this trip. In Tokyo, he'll hold a meeting with the so-called Quad group, which includes leaders from India, Japan and Australia. The U.S. sees the group as a counterweight to China. Thornton says the Quad needs to be more than just being against something.

THRONTON: It's been a little bit tricky to do that because the U.S. has an impulse to sort of make it about China for our own domestic political reasons, I think. And that makes the other members very uncomfortable.

NORTHAM: Because unlike the U.S., the other members of the Quad have to live in the region.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.