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Biden's launch of a trade pact is overshadowed by a Taiwan-China question

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today President Biden answered a question the U.S. normally avoids answering. The question - whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan. A reporter asked if the U.S. would get involved militarily if mainland China invades. Biden said, yes. That would be a big policy change. Though Biden also said U.S. policy has not changed. He also warned China against trying to take the self-governed area which China claims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the maneuvers that are undertaken. But the United States is committed. We've made a commitment. We support the "One China" policy. We support all that we've done in the past. But that does not mean - it does not mean that China has the ability, has the - excuse me - the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid is traveling with Biden on his first official trip to Asia as president. I asked her whether the president has changed his stance.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Officially, no. The president himself publicly said there is no change in U.S. policy. The thing is that, for decades, U.S. policy has been one of strategic ambiguity. Presidents have been particularly careful to not explicitly say that the U.S. would militarily get involved in Taiwan out of concerns that that might escalate tensions with China. But at a news conference, Biden was explicitly asked that, given he did not want to get involved in Ukraine militarily, would he get involved militarily in Taiwan? And the president unequivocally said yes.

FADEL: Yeah.

KHALID: You know, the reaction from Beijing, as expected, was swift. China's foreign minister said that it deplored Biden's comments and said the U.S. should not defend Taiwan's independence. The White House tried to walk this back quickly. An official sent me a text message saying that nothing about U.S. foreign policy here has changed. Though I will say, Leila, this all definitely took attention away from what the White House wanted to focus on today, which was this new trade pact.

FADEL: So let's talk about that trade pact. What's it all about?

KHALID: It's called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and it's really about competition with China. You know, it's not a traditional free trade agreement with incentives to lower tariffs. Biden officials say that this is by design. They realized there was not political appetite in the country for something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which you probably recall was this cornerstone of the Obama economic strategy in the region. But environmental and labor groups opposed it, and President Obama could not get that deal through Congress.

FADEL: Right.

KHALID: So this new pact is about setting standards, common rules of the road - sort of, you know, around key issues that do include trade, but also things like infrastructure, supply chains, clean energy and taxes.

FADEL: So who's signed on to this deal? How will it work?

KHALID: There are 13 countries, including the U.S., that are signing up. You know, it includes a range of countries, from large economies like Japan and Australia to emerging markets like Thailand and Vietnam. I will say that what exactly all these countries are signing up for is unclear. There are no binding commitments yet. And, you know, essentially, this is a pact to cooperate. I will say, one major challenge for Biden is to prove that this deal is more than a framework. And some allies in the region certainly want more. In fact, earlier today, as President Biden stood next to Japan's prime minister, Japan's prime minister publicly said that he hopes the U.S. comes back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though that is not necessarily likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid, thank you so much for your reporting.

KHALID: Good talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.