Biden plans several stops on Asia trip, region to remain focus: US official

The trip will be Mr Joe Biden's first to the region as US president. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden plans several stops during a visit to Asia this spring, which will be his first to the region as president and include a summit with three key regional allies in Japan, a senior administration official told Reuters.

The official brushed off questions about whether the Ukraine crisis could distract the administration's attention from Asia, saying: "We continue prioritising our Indo-Pacific focus and will have more to come."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Wednesday (Feb 2), declined to give details of the other stops in the region, which Mr Biden's administration has declared its priority as it seeks to push back against China's expanding power and influence.

US officials have said Mr Biden has accepted an invitation to visit Japan in late spring to attend the summit of the Quad, which groups Japan, the United States, Australia and India, but details were still being worked out.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the trip could be in May, with concerns over China and North Korea on top of the agenda and that Washington was looking into having Biden visit South Korea at the same time.

Japan's Yomiuri newspaper on Tuesday cited multiple government sources as saying the visit could be in the last half of May.

The President will travel "later this year to Tokyo for the Quad Summit, as part of our commitment to regularise our engagement through the Quad, which continues to operate at full speed", the senior US official told Reuters in an e-mail late on Tuesday.

"The President will also make several other stops on that trip," added the official, who declined to elaborate.

In stressing the US commitment to the region, the official pointed to US plans to host a summit with leaders from Asean, and for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit Australia next week for a Quad foreign ministers' meeting.

The administration also plans to launch a new Pacific Islands initiative with allies and partners that would bring together regional countries "to coordinate our actions, drive resources and raise our ambition in the region, including on climate, maritime and transportation issues", the official said.

It would, at the same time, finalise negotiations on agreements on so-called compacts of free association with three Pacific Island countries - the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau - that facilitate US military access.

They are due to expire in 2023 in the case of the former two states and in 2024 in the case of Palau.

US Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell warned last month that the Pacific could be the part of the world most likely to see "strategic surprise" - comments apparently referring to possible Chinese ambitions to establish Pacific island bases.

Mr Campbell said the US had not done enough to assist the region and that there was a very short amount of time, working with partners like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and fellow Pacific power France, "to step up our game across the board".

The senior administration official said an announcement of "concrete offerings" under an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiative that Mr Biden announced in October could also be expected soon.

The official said progress was also being made in an agreement dubbed Aukus for the US and Britain to work with Australia to provide it with nuclear-powered submarines.

Mr Biden has visited the region multiple times during his more than three decades as a senator and as vice-president in the Obama administration.

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