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A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Ambiguity or clarity? Taiwan comment dominates Biden’s Asia trip

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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The big idea

Ambiguity or clarity? Taiwan comment dominates Biden’s Asia trip

TOKYO — The biggest news from Joe Biden’s first trip to Asia as president was one that his White House aides perhaps did not plan for at all. 

Ahead of the visit, administration officials meticulously choreographed the overall message it wanted to convey: The United States will play a forceful role in the region to lead an economic and military bulwark against a rising China. It would begin to re-engage on a much broader front when it came to trade, releasing the contours of a 13-country pact meant to replace the much-maligned (at least in the Trump era) Trans-Pacific Partnership. Biden would participate in a meeting of the Quad, the loose alliance meant to serve as a counterweight to China that his administration has elevated in importance. 

But during the final two days of Biden’s five-day swing through South Korea and Japan, the headlines were dominated by the president’s pledge Monday that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily should it come under attack from China.

Was it a blunder? The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Peter Baker reported the president’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks “surprised some members of Mr. Biden’s own administration watching in the room, who did not expect him to promise such unvarnished resolve.”

  • But to your guest Daily 202 writer, what was so intriguing about this episode in Tokyo was that it was a rerun. For instance, when asked at a CNN town hall in October whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, Biden said: “Yes. We have a commitment to do that.” That response was nearly word-for-word how the president responded to the Taiwan question Monday.

While this week’s remarks were a repeat of his previous declarations, Biden’s vow to protect Taiwan in the case of an assault by Beijing carried much more resonance in the aftermath of Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. And delivering the message in Asia also gave his words more weight. The president seemed to be sending a much more direct message to China that it could face similar retribution as Russia from around the globe if it attacked Taiwan, which China sees as a part of its territory.

So did Biden scrap the United States’ so-called strategic ambiguity approach to Taiwan or was it something else?

Danny Russel, the vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Biden appears now to be somewhere between “strategic clarity” and “strategic ambiguity.” 

“He’s clear about his belief that the U.S. should respond in the event of Chinese military aggression against Taiwan. But he’s ambiguous about what exactly that means and what it is based on,” said Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia during the Obama administration.

On Tuesday, Biden said his remarks were not meant to signal a policy change.

“The policy has not changed at all,” he told reporters. “I stated that when I made my statement.”

The rest of the trip

Biden’s Taiwan comments weren’t the only notable developments on this trip, of course. Particularly in South Korea, Biden sought to show how deep international relationships with other leading world economies could reap benefits at home. He toured a Samsung facility on which a new plant in Taylor, Tex., will be modeled. Days later, he touted a fresh investment by Hyundai that included a new electric vehicle factory in Georgia — a state that had been the linchpin not only to his presidential victory but to his party’s control of the Senate. 

Back in Tokyo, Biden was pressed by Wall Street Journal’s Ken Thomas whether he believed a U.S. recession was inevitable. Like on the Taiwan answer, Biden had a simple, one-word initial response: No. 

  • “Our GDP is going to grow faster than China’s for the first time in 40 years,” the president said, when asked to elaborate. “Now, does that mean we don’t have problems?  We do. We have problems that the rest of the world has, but less consequential than the rest of the world has because of our internal growth and strength.”

The specter of North Korea is inescapable whenever any U.S. president visits this region. This time around, Biden underscored his administration’s willingness to meet with the regime without preconditions and said United States had recently offered vaccines to the impoverished nation, which a White House official later said was through Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative. 

All important topics, indeed. But all overshadowed by Taiwan.

What’s happening now

Big races are on the ballot in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas

“Today, Republican voters in Georgia will decide a marquee primary contest for governor between incumbent Brian Kemp and former U.S. senator David Perdue, an election that could be a big setback for former president Donald Trump as he tries to play GOP kingmaker. Trump is backing Perdue, who has echoed Trump’s baseless claims of 2020 election fraud, while the heavily favored Kemp is supported by former vice president Mike Pence,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report for Post Politics Now.

As U.N. representative visits China’s Xinjiang region, fears of a coverup

“It is moments like this that critics of the U.N. trip worry will turn the first visit to China by a U.N. human rights chief since 2005 into little more than a propaganda coup for the Chinese government. Beijing has repeatedly denied accusations of committing cultural genocide against its minority Uyghur residents in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million to 2 million residents have been incarcerated, according to rights researchers,” Lily Kuo reports.

Pelosi challenges archbishop’s denial of Communion over abortion rights

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday questioned whether a San Francisco archbishop who said he would deny her Communion over abortion rights was using a double standard by allowing politicians who support the death penalty to receive the sacrament,” Donna Cassata and John Wagner report.

US lacks full picture of ransomware attacks, Senate panel finds

“The report, released Tuesday, also found that the government lacks information on how much ransom was paid — typically in the form of cryptocurrencies — by victims of such ransomware attacks … The investigation found the federal government ‘lacks the necessary information to deter and prevent these attacks, and to hold foreign adversaries and cybercriminals accountable for perpetrating them,’” Roll Call's Gopal Ratnam reports.

The war in Ukraine

Putin made ‘big strategic mistake,’ NATO chief says

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘made a big strategic mistake’ in invading Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as the war reached its three-month mark with no end in sight. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Russia of ‘trying to trample the aspirations of an entire nation with tanks,’” Annabelle Timsit, Amy Cheng, Adela Suliman, Andrew Jeong and Rachel Pannett report.

More key updates:

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

In a polarized America, Justice Dept. police reform unfolds slowly

Despite federal probes of more than three-dozen jurisdictions, police still fatally shoot about 1,000 civilians a year, most of them Black and many unarmed, according to data collected and analyzed by The Washington Post. The killings in 2020 of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, in particular, were followed by widespread public outrage over police violence and the relative lack of consequences for many who commit it,” David Nakamura reports.

“The question is how to change that reality at a time when rising gun violence and deep political polarization have complicated the Biden administration’s push for greater police accountability — and after the collapse of legislation in Congress that would have banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants, prohibited racial profiling and eliminated qualified immunity for officers. A big piece of the answer, Justice officials say, is convincing police to take ownership of the push for change.”

… and beyond

There has to be a 2024 backup plan. There’s a backup plan, right?

“As they look toward 2024, Democrats are unified in their conception of doom: the restoration of Trump, joined down-ballot by anti-democratic Republicans who will end fair elections and any hope of combating climate change. But Democratic divisions remain over how to prevent that dismal future. Many are preoccupied by the midterms, which are less predictable now that post-Roe fury may well send more pro-choice voters to the polls, and others are focused on the even more immediate threat of rampaging inflation. Hanging over it all is a genuine debate over whether Biden’s being on or off the ticket is the best course of action. ‘Is this a real question?’ one disbelieving White House aide asked me on a recent evening when I brought up what might happen in 2024,” Gabriel Debenedetti writes for New York Magazine.

The Biden agenda

New Justice Dept. policy says agents must intervene if they see abuse

“The Justice Department has updated its use-of-force policy for the first time in 18 years, telling federal agents they have a duty to intervene if they see other law enforcement officials using excessive force — a change that follows years of protests over police killings,” Devlin Barrett reports.

U.S. negotiating deal among Saudis, Israelis and Egyptians

“The Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on negotiations that, if successful, could be a first step on the road to the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Axios's Barak Ravid reports.

As border crossings soar, Biden relies on shelters to manage influx

“As the United States experiences the largest wave of migration at the southwestern border in decades, it is increasingly relying on an informal pipeline of shelters and other way stations to house and feed migrants who are allowed to stay on a temporary basis,” the New York Times's Eileen Sullivan reports.

White House explores tapping emergency diesel reserve to ease price spike

“The White House is considering an emergency declaration that would enable President Joe Biden to release diesel from a rarely used stockpile in a bid to address a major supply crunch,” CNN's Matt Egan reports.

White House weighs waiving smog rules on gasoline to lower pump price

“Refiners and blenders are required to avoid lower-cost components like butane in summer gasoline, but the White House is weighing suspending that rule to help lower fuel costs. The components help elevate gasoline's Reid vapor pressure, or RVP, which contributes to smog at higher levels, particularly in the hot summer months,” Reuters's Jarrett Renshaw and Stephanie Kelly report.

D.C. elections, visualized

Voters in the June 21 Democratic primary will choose a nominee for mayor and city council wards 1, 3, 5, 6, chairman and at-large in this deep-blue city, where the primary often determines the winner in November. Here is where the candidates for contested seats stand on several key issues.

Hot on the left

Perdue makes racist remark about Abrams: She’s ‘demeaning her own race’

“Former senator David Perdue, who is trailing in the polls for Georgia’s GOP gubernatorial nomination, on Monday attacked Stacey Abrams, the Democrat running unopposed in her primary, by claiming she’s ‘demeaning her own race,’” Mariana Alfaro and Felicia Sonmez report.

“She said that Georgia is the worst place in the country to live,” Perdue said. “Hey, she ain’t from here. Let her go back where she came from if she doesn’t like it here.”

Hot on the right

In Colorado, Bennet braces for another red wave

“How precarious is Senate Democrats’ majority? Just ask Colorado’s Michael Bennet,” Burgess Everett reports for Politico.

“The low-key Democratic senator hails from a state that President Joe Biden won by 13 points. His in-state colleague, Sen. John Hickenlooper, won by 9 points in 2020 against a Republican incumbent. Yet Bennet has an ominous warning for any Democrat feeling optimistic about holding the majority and even expanding it in November.”

Colorado’s status as a blue state “is an incorrect perception among people” in Washington, he said. “Colorado remains a swing state.”

Today in Washington

Biden will land in Anchorage at 12:15 p.m., departing for D.C. at 1:45 p.m.

Biden will arrive at Andrews at 8:20 p.m.. He’ll get back to the White House at 8:40 p.m.

In closing

A tale of 31 burgers: ‘Apparently my 2 yr old knows how to order DoorDash’

Cathy Free has the details: “Kelsey Golden was playing with her 2-year-old son, Barrett, on her front porch last week when a DoorDash driver pulled into the driveway. The deliverywoman climbed out of the car and held up a large paper sack. ‘Your 31 cheeseburgers?’ she asked.”

“Golden, 36, said she was sure the driver had the wrong house. Then she took a close look at the receipt. It had her name and address on it.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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