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The Morning Dispatch: Biden’s Focus Turns to Asia
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden’s Focus Turns to Asia

The president unveils new economic agreements with Asian partners and pledges military support for Taiwan.

Happy Tuesday! Between Arby’s adding a Wagyu beef burger to its menu and McDonald’s partnering with Kanye West to “reimagine” its packaging, yesterday will be remembered as an inflection point in American fast food history.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Voters go to the polls today in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas to cast their ballots in the states’ various primary elections and runoffs. Of particular note will be Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Brian Kemp and former Sen. David Perdue; Georgia’s Republican secretary of state primary between Brad Raffensperger and Rep. Jody Hice; Alabama’s Republican U.S. Senate primary between Katie Britt, Mike Durant, and Rep. Mo Brooks; and a Democratic U.S. House primary in Texas between Rep. Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros. 

  • In what is believed to be the first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion began, a Ukrainian court on Monday found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of premeditated murder and violating the “rules and customs of war” after he admitted to fatally shooting a 62-year-old unarmed civilian in the Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka. The soldier, who was sentenced to life in prison, claimed he was following orders from superiors who were concerned the civilian would report their location.

  • After suspending all business activity in Russia in early March, Starbucks announced Monday it will permanently exit the country and “no longer have a brand presence” in the market. The company said it will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 employees in the country for six months while they “transition to new opportunities.” Separately, CNBC reported Monday Airbnb plans to close its domestic business in China and remove all mainland Chinese listings by this summer, while continuing to allow Chinese tourists to book lodging in other countries.

  • Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday data from a Phase II/III trial showed a third 3-µg dose of the companies’ COVID-19 vaccine was safe and solicited a strong immune response in children between 6 months and 5 years of age—about 80 percent effective against symptomatic infection. The companies plan to finish filing the data with the Food and Drug Administration this week, and the agency said a panel of outside experts will meet to discuss the vaccines on June 14 and 15.

  • A third-party report released Sunday—commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee—found SBC leaders mishandled sexual abuse claims within the church for decades, and that survivors were “met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” from church leaders.

  • Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Senate primary remains too close to call—and on track for a recount—with Dr. Mehmet Oz leading Dave McCormick by fewer than 1,000 votes. The McCormick campaign filed a lawsuit on Monday arguing that because of a court order released last week, election officials must count mail-in and absentee ballots that lack a date on their envelope. The matter will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.

  • Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed on Monday to avenge the death of a top member of the country’s Revolutionary Guard who was shot and killed by unknown assailants over the weekend. Iranian officials have, without evidence, blamed Israel and the United States for the assassination, and the incident will likely heighten regional tensions.

  • A three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit unanimously kept in place an injunction blocking most of Florida’s new social media law that would prohibit platforms from moderating users’ posts based on viewpoint. “It is substantially likely that social-media companies—even the biggest ones—are ‘private actors’ whose rights the First Amendment protects, that their so-called ‘content-moderation’ decisions constitute protected exercises of editorial judgment, and that the provisions of the new Florida law that restrict large platforms’ ability to engage in content moderation unconstitutionally burden that prerogative,” the judges wrote.

  • An FBI report released Monday found the number of “active shooter incidents” in the United States—defined as one or more individuals engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area and excluding gang violence, self-defense, or domestic disputes—increased from 40 in 2020 to 61 in 2021. All but one of the shootings were carried out by men, and a total of 243 people were killed (103) or wounded (140) in the 61 incidents.

  • Special counsel John Durham and his team have sought to demonstrate at  trial this week that the FBI took a tip about alleged Trump campaign connections to Russia more seriously because agents didn’t know the tip’s source–attorney Michael Sussmann, charged with lying to the FBI—had shared the information in his capacity as an attorney for Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Sussmann’s defense claims the FBI knew about his Democratic ties and decided to pursue the lead independently.

Biden Tries to ‘Pivot to Asia’

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (Photo by David Mareuil – Pool/Getty Images)

Throughout his campaign and first year in office, President Joe Biden expressed a strong desire to focus his administration’s foreign policy on the Eastern Hemisphere and counter the rising power of China—reviving former President Barack Obama’s attempted “pivot to Asia.” The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last year detracted from that goal, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine all but shredded the plan entirely.

But Biden has spent the past few days attempting to make up for lost time, making his first visits to South Korea and Japan since being sworn in, unveiling the beginnings of an economic agreement with 12 countries, and making a bold statement on the U.S.’s intent to defend Taiwan that sounded like—but wasn’t, his policy officials insist—a step beyond our previous defense commitments.

Just like Biden’s itinerary, let’s start in Seoul. The president’s visit came just 10 days after U.S.-friendly Yoon Seok-youl was sworn in as South Korea’s president. Biden focused on strengthening ties between the two nations. “Historically, the U.S. has provided security to South Korea, and it’s kind of been one way,” said Scott Snyder, U.S.-South Korea policy director at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But [what] was really striking to me about Biden’s visit was the extent to which big South Korean companies are pledging to make investments in the United States.” Samsung, for example, is planning to finish a $17 billion factory near Austin, Texas, in 2024, and Hyundai Motor Group says it will build a $5.5 billion electric vehicle manufacturing facility in Savannah, Georgia, by 2025 and spend another $5 billion on developing new automotive technology in the U.S.

But the biggest economic news of the trip—and the ostensible reason for it—came in Japan, where Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Essentially an agreement to make some agreements, the framework—which is technically not a trade deal—focuses on four priority areas: standardizing rules in the digital economy, improving supply chain resilience, promoting environmentally friendly technology and infrastructure, and opposing money laundering, corruption, and tax evasion. Partner countries can pick and choose where they want to get involved. In addition to the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, the nations of India, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam all signed on. All together, the bloc represents about 40 percent of the global economy, according to the White House.

IPEF has drawn comparisons to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—the trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration that was quickly abandoned by both parties as the American public soured on free trade—but the more recent agreement is far more limited in scope—a statement of agreed priorities more than a commitment to particular policies. “The key problem for Biden in Asia is that he is constrained by the domestic politics of trade in the United States,” Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, told the Wall Street Journal. “What countries in Asia want is precisely what Biden cannot give: greater access to the U.S. market.”

After the Trump administration withdrew from TPP, the remaining countries renamed the agreement the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), forging ahead without the United States. And China has proven more than happy to step into the economic gap the U.S. left, dramatically increasing its share of trade in the region and spearheading an agreement of its own—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—which doesn’t require members’ economies to liberalize as the U.S.-led agreements do. “If we don’t pass this agreement—if America doesn’t write those rules—then countries like China will,” former President Barack Obama argued in 2015

That’s a paradigm several economic heavyweights in the region would like to avoid. “Japan—and almost everybody else, Australia—they really would like us in the CPTPP, because we have the heft to be the counterbalance [to China],” Sheila Smith, an Asia-Pacific senior fellow and Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Dispatch. “China’s influence has grown to a point where, without us back in the game, so to speak, on the economic side of relationships … China has carte blanche to use more coercive economic means to get countries to follow in their footsteps.”

IPEF is the Biden administration’s attempt to reenter the United States in the conversation, but the pact had to be watered down in several key ways to get the various member countries on board. The framework’s impact will depend on what its signers are able to hash out in the coming months: To encourage cooperation on other fronts without committing to tariff reductions, the U.S. will likely have to dangle other incentives, like money for infrastructure projects or streamlining customs for partner nations’ goods. “It really comes down to what the U.S. can offer,” Niels Graham, an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, told The Dispatch. “With deals like this, the devils are really in the details.”

One such detail—a prerequisite for many of the nations party to the agreement—is the absence of Taiwan. The island is a major microchips manufacturer and a natural partner in the effort to make supply chains more resilient both to disasters like COVID-19 and bullying from authoritarian regimes like China. But including Taiwan would have antagonized China in ways many smaller countries—more reliant on Chinese trade—could not afford. “It would have immediately been a throw down if we had included Taiwan,” Smith said. “The Biden administration really wants to say, ‘We are not here to force you into an either-or choice [between us and China].’”

Still, a bipartisan group of 52 senators urged the administration last week to include Taiwan anyway, arguing not doing so would “significantly distort the regional and global economic architecture” and allow China to “claim that the international community does not in fact support meaningful engagement with Taiwan.” Responding to the criticism, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan assured reporters the United States is still looking to deepen its “economic partnership” with Taiwan—just on a bilateral basis instead. 

But those fearing the Biden administration had softened its support for Taiwan were soon disabused of that notion, when a reporter asked Biden during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida if he was “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan”—if it came to that.

“Yes,” the president responded. “That’s the commitment we made. … The idea that it can be taken by force is just not appropriate.”

The comments weren’t the first time Biden’s appeared to untether the United States from what’s known as the One China policy. As we wrote back in October when he made a similar commitment:

As tensions with Beijing have grown, it has become more or less conventional wisdom in Washington that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely ensnare the United States and spark a global conflict. But pursuant to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States technically doesn’t even formally recognize Taiwan diplomatically, let alone have an established mutual defense agreement with the island.

The act—passed by Congress after then-President Jimmy Carter unilaterally annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty with Taipei as a condition of establishing relations with China—established legislatively the United States’ stance toward Taiwan. In it, Washington vowed to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means … a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States,” and “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Precedent dictates American presidents project a sense of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan’s defense, remaining purposely vague on what actions by China would trigger a response.

Just like last time, White House officials were quick to clarify Biden’s comments did not constitute a change from the status quo. “He [reiterated] our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself,” an unnamed staffer told reporters. But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some analysts believe it’s necessary to make clear to China the consequences of any encroachment.

“The Chinese have built their military, they have exercised their military, they have increasingly put pressure in the air and on maritime surroundings of Taiwan,” Smith said. “I think it really is incumbent upon—obviously the government of Taiwan, but also us, and increasingly Japan—to say, ‘Hey, that won’t stand.’”

Worth Your Time

  • In a piece for Bloomberg, American Enterprise Institute scholar Hal Brands argues Biden’s repeated “gaffes” on coming to Taiwan’s defense are not gaffes at all, but part of a deliberate shift away from strategic ambiguity. “This accidentally-on-purpose rhetorical strategy has its merits. It reduces any chance that China might attack Taiwan on the basis of a misperception that the US would stay out of the fracas, without triggering the diplomatic confrontation a formal shift would bring,” he argues. “[But] statements don’t accomplish much. The U.S. urgently needs to be reinforcing and dispersing its bases in Asia, so they are less vulnerable to a Chinese attack, and dramatically expanding its stockpiles of long-range and precision-guided munitions. The Pentagon needs the ability to break an air and maritime blockade of Taiwan, and to absorb a beating in the early days of a conflict and keep on fighting. Washington must also develop a deeper political and military relationship with Taiwan, to improve cooperation in a crisis. … Clarifying, albeit in a muddled way, America’s commitment to Taiwan is useful. Showing that America can actually defend that island would be even better.”

  • In Christianity Today, Russell Moore reacts to the recently released Southern Baptist Convention report on sexual abuse within the church. “Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse,” he writes. “I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. I only know firsthand the rage of one who never expected to say anything but ‘we’ when referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, and can never do so again. I only know firsthand the rage of one who loves the people who first told me about Jesus, but cannot believe that this is what they expected me to do, what they expected me to be. I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live is back tonight! Tune in at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT for a conversation between David and Atlantic staff writer Tim Alberta about the Evangelical church and the recent Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse report. Then, Sarah and Andrew will jump in with their thoughts on the primary returns as they come in. If you have any questions for the gang, drop them in the comments here.

  • On the site today, Andrew reports on whether Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger can withstand the challenge from Donald Trump’s preferred candidate, Audrey breaks down Alabama’s GOP Senate primary, and Andrew Fink examines what politics in South Ossetia tells us about Russia.

Let Us Know

Do you think a limited deal like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is preferable to no deal at all? And do you agree with Hal Brands that it’s time for the United States to drop its “strategic ambiguity” with Taiwan? Has your answer been shaped at all by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.