Tue. Nov 30th, 2021

If an alliance’s strength were measured by the length of the joint statements its leaders issue when they meet, America’s bond with the Republic of Korea would be strong indeed. Friday’s discussions between President Biden and South Korea’s President

Moon Jae-in,

on his first Washington trip since Jan. 20, however, produced little of real consequence. Domestic priorities like climate change and Covid overshadowed international strategy.

Four months in, the Biden administration still lacks an Indo-Pacific blueprint, as this summit showed. Seoul and Washington face two major strategic issues, critical for themselves and the entire region. First, most immediately, is North Korea’s nuclear and conventional military threat. Second, longer-term and more strategic, is China’s growing philosophical, politico-military and economic assault against the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific generally.

Addressing these challenges effectively is central to any effort to refocus American attention on the region.

Donald Trump

and

Barack Obama

both failed to “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, and Mr. Biden has stumbled out of the starting gate. Although purely coincidental, the Iran-Hamas assault on Israel proved again, as former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan allegedly once told a reporter, that “events, my dear boy, events” often determine the course of foreign affairs.

More important, the Moon-Biden meeting reveals that, after four months of anticipation, the U.S. administration is still offering rhetoric rather than substance. For example, American officials have repeatedly asserted that Mr. Biden’s North Korea policy is unlike his predecessors’, but the officials have been noticeably reticent on what it will be like. If anything, Mr. Moon seems to have pushed Mr. Biden toward the “action for action” process Pyongyang has preferred for decades.

On China, the Biden-Moon joint statement spoke only obliquely. For Seoul and Washington, reconceptualizing Beijing’s role regarding Pyongyang and the Indo-Pacific generally is long overdue. Treating China as merely another participant in the six-party nuclear talks, or as a disinterested “convener,” or as a “mediator,” ignores both the sustenance it has historically provided to the Kim family dictatorship and current reality. China has long hidden behind this camouflage, and the U.S. and others have too willingly acquiesced.

Seoul should welcome a broad reassessment of Beijing’s malign influence. Korean reunification is the ultimate objective of American and South Korean policy, although the two countries have wildly differing ideas about how to achieve it. China could be instrumental in making it happen, or at least accepting it.

Today, however,

Xi Jinping

shows no discernible interest in creating one Korea. He has far more pressing Chinese interests to pursue, and Pyongyang’s nuclear threat distracts attention from his pursuit of Sinocentric objectives. North Korea’s nuclear and conventional military threats against Japan, South Korea and America suit Mr. Xi just fine. Why not? For decades, China has paid no price for North Korea’s menace, and the Moon-Biden meeting produced no indication that anything will change.

Change will come only when Beijing is forced to take responsibility for Pyongyang. China’s growing military threat was already a weighty motivating factor, among several, for Japan, India and Australia to join the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific “Quad” in 2007. The grouping recently met virtually at the head-of-state level for the first time. Mr. Biden should recognize the corollary that North Korea’s threats, particularly against Japan and America, must be laid on China’s doorstep. Beijing can no longer be allowed to evade the consequences of its actions, and Seoul has an important role to play.

Here is where Mr. Moon, and all South Korean leaders, need to begin constructing a grand strategy. Disconnected from the still-largely inchoate Quad, South Korea could find itself inexorably drifting under increasing Chinese hegemony, which is manifestly Mr. Xi’s intention across East Asia. The Asian Quad is no Far East NATO, but its interests and values are more aligned with South Korea’s free society than the Uyghur-subjugating, Hong Kong-crushing, freedom-of-religion suppressing and social-credit-scoring authoritarianism represented by today’s China.

One need not entirely buy an analogy to the North Atlantic community during the Cold War to agree that South Korea should work more closely with other Indo-Pacific states. If North Korea persists in its nuclear efforts, the odds of Japan and others pursuing nuclear weapons grow exponentially. Making this clear to China is crucial and doesn’t require making the Quad into a “Quint” if South Korea is reluctant to pursue the relationship fully. Perhaps Taiwan or Singapore could make the foursome into a fivesome instead.

To date, the Biden administration has proved much more adept at pressuring friends like Israel than pressuring states that are real threats to America and our allies, such as China and North Korea. Last week’s meeting with President Moon was another missed opportunity.

Mr. Bolton is author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” He served as the president’s national security adviser, 2018-19, and ambassador to the United Nations, 2005-06.

Correction
An earlier version misspelled Harold Macmillan’s name.

Journal Editorial Report: What did the U.S. get for a big concession? Image: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

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By rahul