Biden Visits South Korea And Japan, Emphasizing Trade To Counter China : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden said the U.S. Military would defend Taiwan if China invaded. He also announced a new, if nebulous, economic compact with 12 nations designed to counter China's influence in the region — an echo of the major Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and nixed by former president Trump.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Biden Visits South Korea And Japan, Emphasizing Trade To Counter China

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ANNA: Hi. My name is Anna (ph), and I just finished my fourth week of medical school. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Well, it's 8:20 a.m. here in Washington, D.C., and it is 9:20 p.m. in Tokyo.

ANNA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll probably still be studying. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: And Asma, I noted the time in Tokyo because that is where you are right now. You are in Japan traveling with President Biden.

KHALID: That's right. I am currently in a very swanky hotel where President Biden is staying, overlooking a beautiful view of the skyline here. I don't even want to say skyline. It's just, like, all over. You see beautiful, tall buildings - exactly what you imagine of Tokyo.

DETROW: All right. So we will get to more of what happened on the trip and its big-picture goals in a few minutes. But let's start with some news that recently happened today. President Biden was doing a press conference with Japan's prime minister, and he was asked by CBS News about Taiwan, as he often is. And, as he has often done lately, he went a little bit further than the official U.S, on-paper foreign policy. So let's listen to that exchange and then talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY CORDES: You didn't want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes.

CORDES: You are?

BIDEN: That's the commitment we made. That's the commitment we made. We are not - look; here's the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We've signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it can be taken by force - just taken by force - is just not - it's just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it's a burden that is even stronger.

KHALID: You know, the big question here is, was the president indicating a change in U.S. policy? And I will say, officially, no. I mean, the president did say publicly in these same remarks that there is no change to U.S. policy. But, you know, then the question is, well, what exactly is U.S. policy towards Taiwan? And for decades, it's been one of what people describe as strategic ambiguity. And what that means is that, you know, essentially, presidents of the past have been very careful to not explicitly say that the U.S. would militarily get involved out of concern that that might escalate tensions with China. I will say, though - and what we heard from President Biden today - there wasn't a whole lot of ambiguity.

DETROW: Asma, how is China responding? How is China seeing this latest statement?

KHALID: The reaction from Beijing has been swift. A spokesperson for the foreign ministry said that China deplored Biden's comments and added that the U.S. should not defend Taiwan's independence.

DETROW: So what was the response like from staffers after Biden said this today?

KHALID: You know, the White House was quick to clarify. You know, to my knowledge, they didn't issue out a big public statement, but I did receive a text from a White House official when I was just asking for guidance on this all, reiterating the fact that the president was not indicating a change to U.S. policy. And they insist that, really, what he said today is no different than what U.S. policy towards Taiwan has been.

DETROW: So, Mara, there's a lot I want to talk to you about. And first, I think we should just kind of clarify and put into context the many different tightropes that presidents typically try to walk with Taiwan and China and why being vague does matter here. What is the ultimate goal of ambiguous statements?

LIASSON: My interpretation of this statement was that it wasn't a typical Biden gaffe. And one of the tells on that is the White House response. Usually when it's a real gaffe, they come out right away with clarification, something public, a statement. But when they said he wasn't changing the policy - he explicitly said in his remarks, quote, "we support a One China policy." But then he went on to say that China doesn't have the right to invade Taiwan by force.

DETROW: And just real quick, the One China policy is saying that, you know, there's only one China, but at the same time not fully recognizing its full sovereignty over Taiwan. So, like, Taiwan is a country, but it's not a country, but we view it as one.

KHALID: I will say, as you think about that, Scott, though, that policy is very murky in itself.

DETROW: It is. Yes.

LIASSON: It's murky. But there is a law in the United States that requires the U.S. to send military assistance to Taiwan, which we already do, but also to come to its aid with equipment if they're invaded. So I think what Biden did today was clarify rather than make a mistake. So he was telling China that the U.S. would not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, but he was also sending a pretty clear message - don't think about invading.

DETROW: And that's why this matters. Because, repeatedly, Asma, over the course of his presidency, Biden has said one blunt thing or another that amounts to the U.S. would get involved, right? The U.S. views Taiwan as critically important. Don't test this, China. But then at the same time, the White House is trying to say, well, no, no; it's not a policy change, it's just an interesting dance. But it seems to be purposeful when Biden keeps doing it over and over and over again.

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, you're right, Scott. This isn't the first time that the president has made similar remarks to this. He did this, I believe, twice already last year. And so what this indicates to me now is that the president has been rather clear, actually, about the U.S. involvement in Taiwan.

And this even came up today, that the president does think it's extremely important to hold Russia accountable, not just explicitly for what it is doing in Ukraine, but also, you know, to show the global community that this type of behavior should not be repeated. And U.S. officials do think of China; that possibly China could glean some sort of lesson from how Russia has been punished through its actions in Ukraine.

LIASSON: The big question when the invasion of Ukraine started was what takeaway would China get from this? Would they say, oops, we better not invade Taiwan because the West can be united and can come to the aid of another democracy, or should we do it really fast before they have a chance to react? But all of the U.S. officials I've talked to think that the West's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the West's hand in terms of communicating to China very clearly that there will be a huge price to pay if they try to do the same thing with Taiwan.

DETROW: And the question of the future of Taiwan is probably the biggest confrontation point of many confrontation points between the U.S. and China. We've talked a lot about that. Asma, the broader point of the trip was to continue to organize other Asian countries in a way to counter China. So why don't we take a quick break, and we'll come back, and we'll zoom out, and we'll talk about all the different ways Biden is trying to get countries like South Korea, Japan and Australia and India on the same page to counter China.

And we're back. So President Biden, like many presidents before him, entered the White House with a mission of reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in an effort to counter China's influence. But, you know, we've had a pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, many other things, and, as is often the case, that goal seems to have times taken a back seat. Asma, this was a trip all about putting it in the forefront again and also putting together a new economic pact.

KHALID: That's right. And that was supposed to be the major headline today, this Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that the Biden administration launched. There are 13 countries, including the United States, who've signed up for it. And, you know, we can get into more details here, but I should be clear - this is not a traditional free trade agreement with incentives to lower tariffs and all that. It's really more of a vision to create common standards and an opportunity for the United States to reassert economic leadership in the region because, frankly, they have been sort of MIA for some years.

DETROW: But, Mara, you can't talk about this without thinking about that major Asian trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which became kind of the stand-in for both parties' increasingly frustrated views of free trade and that the U.S. ultimately pulled out of.

LIASSON: Yeah, this was kind of a great tragedy, according to many, many policymakers. I always thought at the time that if TPP had been sold as the Contain China Bill or the Exclude China Pact, it might have gotten more support from both sides. But what was really interesting is, as you said, it was a victim of the anti-free trade sentiment in both parties. But something like it might be resurrected because of the anti-China sentiment in both parties, the bipartisan desire to compete with China and make sure that the West can and make sure that China doesn't write the rules.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: So this is a pretty interesting development, and it'll be really interesting to see if the growing isolationist wing of the Republican Party is willing to make an exception when it comes to China.

DETROW: So, Asma, you looked into this in some preview stories of this trip because we have focused so much on the isolationist, anti-trade views in the Republican Party, but they have grown and grown in the Democratic Party among voters as well. I mean, let's remember, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, played such a big role in setting up TPP and then running in 2016, in that political climate, stepped away from it as a candidate. And the shift has only increased since then.

KHALID: That's right. And Biden officials were remarkably blunt in being asked what was wrong with TPP and said, you know, essentially, they did not have the support of Congress. Despite efforts to try to get it through, they could not get it through. And I was struck by that response because, basically, they weren't really outlining specific policy disagreements with TPP, they were outlining the fact that there were political calculations that had to be considered. And with this new pact, you know, the thinking is it should be more palpable to parts of the Democratic base.

I think one question, though, is sort of what exactly are all these countries signing up for? There are no binding commitments yet. Negotiations are now going to begin in earnest on a whole bunch of kind of key areas of focus, which include trade, but also things like supply chains, clean energy taxation and...

DETROW: Let me just clarify - you say negotiation begin. So this is not the completion of a deal, this is kind of a bunch of leaders getting together to say, hey, here's a new thing.

KHALID: Exactly. Exactly, right? And I think, like, one of the questions is, can President Biden, can his White House prove that this is more than just a framework? And what is it actually going to look like in the long run? And really, I mean, there's a lot of unknowns. Some trade experts I spoke with say that it does give the U.S. some time. It shows that the U.S. is wanting to be engaged in this region, and it gives them credibility. But, you know, frankly, even some Asian leaders want more than this.

I was struck today that at this press conference that President Biden gave, Japan's prime minister stood beside him and more than once said that he hopes the U.S. comes back to TPP. I mean, there is no sort of public shyness about this that some leaders...

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Want more than this.

LIASSON: Well, Asma, could this morph into TPP without being called that?

KHALID: I think that is the good question.

LIASSON: And also, isn't the bottom line here that whatever organization or pact is created exclude China? That was the whole purpose of TPP because the organization that was formed by Asian countries only after the U.S. pulled out of TPP - China wanted into that.

KHALID: And China still wants into this.

LIASSON: And that was exactly against the whole concept. The whole point of TPP was to exclude China.

DETROW: So, Asma, we have the headlines of President Biden clarifying just how much the U.S. is willing to stand up for Taiwan. We have the broader goal that he set of kind of wrangling other countries together to the same common framework to counter China economically. Bluntly, this trip mostly happened over the course of a weekend and while most of us in the U.S. were asleep.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: So since you had a front-row seat, what are the other big headlines that we need to know about this trip - what Biden did, what mattered?

KHALID: In a nutshell, Scott, I will say the subtext of this entire trip was about countering China. It is not the country he visited here, but to me it was very clearly - the goal was to help position the U.S. to take on a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. And, you know, again, implicitly, what does that mean? We talk about a free-and-open Pacific. It means counter China.

DETROW: Yeah. That is it for today. Asma, arigato for not only your reporting, but staying up late to podcast with us here in the U.S. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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