Biden described the advanced semiconductors manufactured at the chip factory as "a wonder of innovation" and crucial to the global economy

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and US President Joe Biden exchanged views on their technology and supply chain alliance. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Biden’s chip factory visit in South Korea a sign of deepening supply coop between the two democracies?

President Joe Biden was in South Korea on his first Asia trip as US leader, with his first stop being the massive Samsung semiconductor chip factory, with global supply chain issues topping the agenda.

Biden, in his first remarks since arriving in South Korea at the start of a trip meant to demonstrate the US’ resolve to lead in Asia, said the two countries’ alliance was “a lynchpin of peace, stability, and prosperity” in the world. Speaking at the factory in Pyeongtaek alongside South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, Biden described the advanced semiconductors manufactured there as “a wonder of innovation” and crucial to the global economy.

The tiny, smart wafers “enable our modern lives” and are “the key to propelling us into the next era of humanity’s technological development”, he commented. Semiconductors — the microchips essential to most modern devices from phones to cars and high-tech weapons — are at the heart of a global supply chain slowdown that threatens to disrupt the world’s post-Covid economic recovery.

South Korea and the United States need to work to “keep our supply chains resilient, reliable and secure”, Biden said. The United States needs to ensure “our economic and our national security are not dependent on countries that don’t share our values,” the president went on.

“Putin’s brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine has further spotlighted the need to secure our critical supply chain,” he said. Ahead of the speech, Biden toured the massive Samsung chip factory, taking in lengthy presentations from staff clad in lab coats and protective suits on the equipment used to produce semiconductors.

Samsung employs about 20,000 people within the United States and work is underway to build a new semiconductor plant in Texas, opening in 2024. South Korea is a semiconductor powerhouse, supplying about 70% of chips globally, Yoon said in his speech, asking Biden to take a “special interest” in South Korean chip firms.

Today chip factory tours, tomorrow tech supply chain allies

Biden’s visit could help the two allies forge a new “economic and security alliance based on advanced technology and supply-chain cooperation”, the South Korean president outlined.

Semiconductors are now “something akin to a strategic commodity”, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP. China is trying to reduce reliance on US-influenced Dutch and Taiwanese suppliers, and the United States is trying to rebuild its domestic industry, and Biden “needs Samsung’s collaboration in this regard”, he added.

Biden flew to Japan from South Korea on Sunday to join a regional summit of the ‘Quad’ — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — while in Tokyo.

But expert observers like Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College, told AFP the whole point of Biden’s Asia tour is actually China. “It’s an effort to strengthen economic and security relationships with the Asia-Pacific region and block China’s growing influence,” she said.

Washington is hoping the united Western response to Russia’s almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine will give Beijing pause on its Taiwan ambitions — Taiwan being another semiconductor manufacturing and chip factory heavyweight, critical to the vitality of tech hardware supply chain globally, including American consumers.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the aim of the trip is not to confront China, but to highlight that the West and its Asian democratic partners who hold similar values, will not be divided and weakened. But China said last weekend that the US should “build an open and inclusive circle of friends in the Asia-Pacific, instead of assembling closed and exclusive small cliques.”

With reporting from © Agence France-Presse