As Biden visits South Korea focused on jobs for Americans, China launches war games and North Korea preps for a nuclear test
Seoul, South Korea — President Joe Biden opened his trip to Asia on Friday with a focus on the U.S. tech sector, touring a Samsung computer chip plant in South Korea that will serve as model for a $17 billion semiconductor factory the electronics company is building outside Austin, Texas. Mr. Biden will also visit Japan during his six-day stay in Asia.
While the president focused Friday on economics, with a message aimed largely at the U.S. audience, the actions and intensions of America's adversaries China and North Korea will loom large over his visit to the region.
Not long before Mr. Biden touched down in South Korea, Chinese authorities announced the start of military exercises in the disputed South China Sea. The drills were to continue through Monday — a day before the president meets fellow leaders of the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance known as the Quad, a group that includes Australia, India and Japan, in Tokyo.
The four Quad nations share concerns over China's growing regional assertiveness and increasingly capable armed forces. China views the grouping as a part of a U.S.-led push to impede its economic and political rise and frustrate its attempts to intimidate self-governing Taiwan into accepting its demand to accept Beijing's rule.
The other massive elephant in every room that President Biden will visit during his time in Asia is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's nuclear weapons program.
As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reported on Thursday, the isolated "Hermit Kingdom" is upping the ante in its nuclear brinkmanship even as the Kim regime deals with a major COVID-19 outbreak. Joe Bermudez, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Palmer that North Korea could be poised to stage its first nuclear weapons test in three years "as soon as the end of the month."
If not a nuclear test, the North could ratchet up its already-remarkable year of missile launches by firing another long-range rocket — possibly while Mr. Biden is in the region. Under orders from Kim, North Korea has test-fired missile after missile this year. As Palmer reported, they are all designed to carry nuclear warheads, and some are powerful enough to reach the U.S. mainland.
Pyongyang's "preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time," South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said Friday after being briefed by Seoul's spy agency.
Mr. Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said ahead of the president's arrival in South Korea that there was "real risk of some kind of provocation while we're in the region."
"We know what we will do to respond to them. We have communicated with not just our allies, but also with China," he said.
Chips, and "good-paying jobs for Americans"
Military tension aside, Mr. Biden's visit is also a nod to one of his key domestic priorities: increasing the supply of computer chips. A semiconductor shortage last year hurt the availability of autos, kitchen appliances and other goods. The supply crunch caused higher inflation that has crippled Mr. Biden's public approval ratings and caused his administration to focus on increasing domestic manufacturing.
"These little chips," Mr. Biden said in remarks after he toured the Samsung plant, "are the key to propelling us into the next era of humanity's technological development."
Previewing the trip aboard Air Force One, Sullivan said Samsung's investment in Texas would mean "good-paying jobs for Americans and, very importantly, it will mean more supply chain resilience."
South Korea's new President Yoon Suk Yeol and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong were greeting Mr. Biden at the plant on Friday. Yoon is a political newcomer who became president, his first elected office, just over a week ago. He campaigned on taking a tougher stance against North Korea and strengthening the 70-year alliance with the U.S.
Part of the global computer chip shortage is the result of strong demand as much of the world has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic. But COVID-19 outbreaks and other challenges have also caused the closure of semiconductor plants. U.S. government officials have estimated that chip production will not be at the levels they would like until early 2023.
Global computer chip sales totaled $151.7 billion during the first three months of this year, a 23% jump from the same period in 2021, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
More than 75% of global chip production comes from Asia. That's a possible vulnerability the U.S. hopes to protect against through more domestic production and government investment in the sector through a bill being negotiated in Congress.
The risk of Chinese aggression against Taiwan could possibly cut off the flow of high-end computer chips that are needed in the U.S. for military gear as well as consumer goods. Similarly, hermetic North Korea's test-firing of ballistic missiles is a possible risk to South Korea's manufacturing sector, should the brinksmanship escalate.
In terms of chip production, China leads the global pack with a 24% share, followed by Taiwan (21%), South Korea (19%) and Japan (13%). Only 10% of chips are made in the U.S., according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
Samsung announced the Texas-based plant in November of last year. It hopes to begin operations in the second half of 2024. The South Korean electronics giant chose the site based on a number of factors, including government incentives and the "readiness and stability" of local infrastructure.
In addition to Samsung, Mr. Biden has also been highlighting in his recent speeches an announcement by the U.S. firm Intel to build a semiconductor plant near Columbus, Ohio.
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