Biden Takes ‘Bidenomics’ to Colorado, Hits ‘MAGA’ Republicans

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday will tout his “Bidenomics” agenda, contrasting his economic vision with that of so-called “MAGA” Republicans, in remarks at CS Wind, the world’s largest wind tower manufacturer, in Pueblo, Colorado.

CS Wind is expanding with a new $190 million facility that it directly attributes to the passage of 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate and energy bill. The company said the expansion is set to be completed in 2028 and will create 850 jobs.

Pueblo is a district represented by Republican Representative Lauren Boebert, a supporter of former President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda and a harsh critic of Biden’s economic policies. Boebert voted against passing the IRA, calling it “dangerous for America.”

“I am very proud of the work that CS Winds is doing there in Pueblo and the jobs that they’re creating,” Boebert said during an interview Tuesday with local network KKTV. “But as I stated, this will cost the taxpayers overall from the Inflation Reduction Act hundreds of billions of dollars. This bill was a complete scam.”

In a statement, the White House said that Biden is “delivering on his promise to create opportunities and jobs in communities too often left behind, while self-described MAGA Republicans like Representative Lauren Boebert continue to undermine their constituents by trying to block the President’s agenda.”

His remarks highlighting Bidenomics come as Americans rate the president poorly on his handling of the economy. Only 32% of those polled approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. His approval rating remains at 37%.

With many voters saying the economy is a top concern in the 2024 election, the White House has been ramping up messaging that Biden’s economic policies have steered the country away from recession, highlighting positive economic growth, a declining rate of inflation and continued low unemployment.

U.S. inflation continues to fall and is lower than in comparable economies in Europe. However, after a two-year period of the highest inflation in decades, Americans are feeling the pain from prices of goods that are still higher than they were four years ago. They’re also finding it difficult to find affordable credit, as the Federal Reserve imposes higher interest rates to fight inflation.

Is AI About to Steal Your Job?

Almost all U.S. jobs, from truck driver to childcare provider to software developer, include skills that can be done, or at least supplemented, by generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), according to a recent report.

GenAI is artificial intelligence that can generate high-quality content based on the input data used to train it.

“AI is likely to touch every part of every job to some degree,” says Cory Stahle, an economist with, which released the report.

The report finds that almost one in five jobs (19.7%) — like IT operations, mathematics and information design — faces the highest risk of being affected by AI because at least 80% of the job skills those positions require can be done reasonably well by GenAI.

But that doesn’t mean that those jobs will eventually be lost to robots.

“It’s important to recognize that, in general, these technologies don’t affect entire occupations. It actually is very rare that a robot will show up, sit in somebody’s seat to do everything that someone does at their job,” says Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), who researches the impact of technology and innovation on business, the economy and society. researchers analyzed more than 55 million job postings and found that GenAI can perform 50% to almost 80% of the skills required in 45.7% of those job listings. In 34.6% of jobs listed, GenAI can handle less than 50% of the skills.

Jobs that require manual skills or a personal touch, such as nursing and veterinary care, are the least likely to be hard hit by AI, the report says.

In the past, technological advances have mostly affected manual labor. However, GenAI is expected to have the most effect on so-called knowledge workers, generally defined as people who create knowledge or think for a living.

But, for now, AI does not appear poised to steal anyone’s job.

“There are very few jobs that AI can do completely. Even in jobs where AI can do many of the skills, there are still aspects of those jobs that AI cannot do,” Stahle says.

Rather than replace workers, researchers expect GenAI to enhance the work people already do, making them more efficient.

“This is something that, in many ways, we believe is going to unlock human potential and productivity for many workers across many different sectors of the economy,” Stahle says.

“There are a number of things that can happen,” Chui adds. “One is, we simply do more of something we were already doing, and so imagine if you’re a university professor or a teacher, and the grading can be done by machine rather than you. You can take those hours and, instead of grading, you can actually start tutoring your students, spending more time with your students, improving their performance, helping them learn.”

American workers need to begin using the new technology if they hope to remain competitive, according to Chui.

“Workers who are best able to use these technologies will be the most competitive workers in the workforce,” he says. “It was true before, but it’s more true than ever, that we’re all going to have to be lifetime learners.”

A survey developed by Chui finds that almost 80% of workers have experimented with AI tools.

“One of the great powers of these generative AI tools, so far, is they’ve been designed in such a way to make it easy for really anybody to use these types of tools,” Stahle says. “I really believe that people should be looking to embrace these tools and find ways to incorporate them into the work that they’re already interested in doing.”

Ultimately, could one of the unexpected benefits of AI be more efficient employees who work less?

“In general, Americans work a lot,” Chui says. “Maybe we don’t have to work so long. Maybe we have a four-day work week … and so you could give that time back to the worker.”

Shoppers Click ‘Buy’ As Retailers Slash Prices Ahead of Cyber Monday

Holiday shoppers in the U.S. are seeking out the best deals and strategically nabbing the deepest discounts ahead of Cyber Monday, according to data from retailer websites aggregated by third parties.

Cyber Monday, as the first Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday has become known as merchants step up online promotions, is set to be the biggest online shopping day of the year in the United States.

Strong online traffic on Black Friday demonstrated a notable pattern of shoppers putting time and effort into selecting the lowest-cost, best-value merchandise, said Rob Garf, vice president and general manager for retail at Salesforce, which tracks data flowing through its Commerce Cloud e-commerce service.

Despite an earlier start to retailers’ holiday promotions this year, there weren’t a lot of great deals initially, Garf said. Yet “consumers were patient, diligent, and they played a game of discount chicken. And they won once again.”

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, retailers “stepped up the discounting” to roughly 30% on average in the U.S., he said. And “consumers clicked the buy button,” spending $16.4 billion online in the U.S. and $70.9 billion globally that day, according to Salesforce. 

“We saw a big spike,” Garf said, adding that the strong Black Friday online outlay would “pull up” the overall tally for the entire Cyber Week, which started on Tuesday and ends on Monday.

On Cyber Monday, Salesforce expects to see discounts averaging 30% again. The risk for consumers, however, is that products may not be available if they wait, he said.

Salesforce says it derives its benchmarks for online traffic and spending from data flowing through its Commerce Cloud e-commerce service, which it says provides a window into the behavior of 1.5 billion people in 60 countries traversing thousands of e-commerce sites.

Other firms use different measurements to gauge online shopping patterns.

Rival Adobe Analytics forecasts that shoppers will spend a record $12 billion Monday, 5.4% more than last year, representing what it says will be the largest-ever e-commerce shopping day in the U.S. Retailers are set to dangle average price cuts of 30% on electronics, and 19% on furniture, said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. 

Last-minute Cyber Monday shoppers could spend $4 billion between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. EST alone “because consumers are going to be concerned about discounts weakening after that,” Pandya said.

Adobe provides merchants with Experience Cloud, a service which powers their e-commerce platforms, giving Adobe a window into aggregate transaction data at 85% of the top 100 internet retailers.

Overall, “consumers are being very strategic, wanting to maximize their shopping when they think they’ll get the best discounts,” Pandya said. “The online retail sector is one of the few where the consumer is a bit more in the driver’s seat,” he said, particularly with toys and seasonal holiday merchandise.

“There are a lot of online merchants vying for their dollar and they can easily compare prices.”

Mastercard, which measures retail sales across all forms of payment, said e-commerce sales rose 8.5% on Black Friday, while in-store sales rose 1%.

“Digital grew dramatically during the pandemic and then it had a reversion to the mean, when people went back to stores,” said Steve Sadove, senior adviser for Mastercard and former CEO of Saks Inc. “Now you are seeing an acceleration in digital, once again. It’s becoming more important.”

Russian Consumers Feel Themselves in a Tight Spot as High Inflation Persists

The shelves at Moscow supermarkets are full of fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat. But many of the shoppers look at the selection with dismay as inflation makes their wallets feel empty.

Russia’s Central Bank has raised its key lending rate four times this year to try to get inflation under control and stabilize the ruble’s exchange rate as the economy weathers the effects of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and the Western sanctions imposed as a consequence.

The last time it raised the rate — to 15%, doubled that from the beginning of the year — the bank said it was concerned about prices that were increasing at an annualized pace of about 12%. The bank now forecasts inflation for the full year, as well as next year, to be about 7.5%.

Although that rate is high, it may be an understatement.

“If we talk in percentage terms, then, probably, (prices) increased by 25%. This is meat, staple products — dairy produce, fruits, vegetables, sausages. My husband can’t live without sausage! Sometimes I’m just amazed at price spikes,” said Roxana Gheltkova, a shopper in a Moscow supermarket.

Asked if her income as a pensioner was enough to keep food on the table, customer Lilya Tsarkova said: “No, of course not. I get help from my children.”

Without their assistance, “I don’t know how to pay rent and food,” the 70-year-old said.

Figures from the state statistical service Rosstat released on Nov. 1 show a huge spike in prices for some foods compared with 2022 — 74% for cabbage, 72% for oranges and 47% for cucumbers.

The Russian parliament has approved a 2024-26 budget that earmarks a record amount for defense spending. Maxim Blant, a Russian economy analyst based in Latvia, sees that as an indication that prices will continue to rise sharply.

“It is simply impossible to solve the issue of inflation in conditions … when the military-industrial complex receives unlimited funding, when everything they ask for is given to them, when the share of this military-industrial complex in the economy grows at a very rapid pace,” he told The Associated Press.

The central bank’s rate hikes have slightly cooled the ruble’s exchange rate slide — the rate is now about 88 to the U.S. dollar from over 100 earlier. But that’s still far higher than in the summer of 2022, when it was about 60 to the dollar.

That keeps the cost of imports high, even as import possibilities shrink due to Western sanctions.

US Retailers Offer Big Deals for Black Friday, but Will Shoppers Spend?

Expect big discounts and other enticements to lure shoppers to stores for Black Friday. But retailers worry those may not be enough.

Consumers are coming under pressure as their savings dwindle and their credit card debt grows. And although they have gotten some relief from easing inflation, many goods and services like meat and rent are still far higher than they were just three years ago.

Barbara Lindquist, 85, from Hawthorne Woods, Illinois, said she and her husband plan to spend about $1,000 for holiday gifts for her three adult children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. That’s about the same as last year.

But Lindquist, who continues to work as a pre-school teacher at a local church, said she’ll be more focused on deals given still high prices on meat and other staples. And she plans to buy more gift cards, which she believes will help her stick to her budget.

“I go for value,” said Lindquist, who just picked up discounted sheets and towels at Kohl’s for friends who will be visiting from Panama during the holidays.

Many retailers had already ordered fewer goods for this holiday season and have pushed holiday sales earlier in October than last year to help shoppers spread out their spending. An early shopping push appears to be a trend that only got more pronounced during the pandemic when clogs in the supply network in 2021 made people buy early for fear of not getting what they wanted.

But retailers said that many shoppers will be focusing more on deals and will likely wait until the last minute. Best Buy said it’s pushing more items at opening price points, while Kohl’s has simplified its deals, promoting items under a certain price point like $25 at its stores.

Target said shoppers are waiting longer to buy items. For example, instead of buying sweatshirts or denim back in August or September, they held out until the weather turned cold.

“It’s clear that consumers have been remarkably resilient,” Target’s CEO Brian Cornell told analysts last week. “Yet in our research, things like uncertainty, caution and managing a budget are top of mind.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, expects shoppers will spend more this year than last year, but their pace will slow given all the economic uncertainty.

The group has forecast that U.S. holiday sales will rise 3% to 4% for November through December, compared with a 5.4% growth of a year ago. The pace is consistent with the average annual holiday increase of 3.6% from 2010 to pre-pandemic 2019. Americans ramped up spending during the pandemic, with more money in their pockets from federal relief checks and nowhere to go during lockdowns. For the holiday 2021 season, sales for the two-month period surged 12.7%.

Online discounts should be better than a year ago, particularly for toys, electronics and clothing, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks online spending. It predicts toys will be discounted on average by 35%, compared with 22% a year ago, while electronics should see 30% cuts, compared with last year’s 27%. In clothing, shoppers will see an average discount of 25%, compared with 19% last year, Adobe said.

Analysts consider the five-day Black Friday weekend — which includes the Monday after the holiday known as Cyber Monday — a key barometer of shoppers’ willingness to spend. And Black Friday is expected to be once again the busiest shopping day of the year, according to Sensormatic Solutions, a firm that tracks store traffic. On average, the top 10 busiest shopping days in the U.S are expected to once again account for roughly 40% of all holiday retail traffic, Sensormatic said.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail adviser at Circana, a market research firm, said he thinks that shoppers will just stick to a list and not buy on impulse. He also believes they will take their time buying throughout the season.

“There’s no sense of urgency,” Cohen said. “The consumers are saying, ‘I will shop when it’s convenient for me.'”

Asian Shares Mostly Lower, with Markets in Japan, US Closed

Shares were mostly lower in Asia on Thursday after a modest advance on Wall Street that kept the market on track for a fourth straight weekly gain.

Markets in Japan and the United States are closed Thursday for holidays.

Oil prices fell about $1 a barrel after OPEC postponed until next week a meeting to discuss production cuts. The oil cartel has been maintaining a tight market for crude oil with production cuts. It is expected to extend those cuts after oil prices have fallen after a spike in the summer to almost $100 a barrel.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.4% to 17,668.99 and the Shanghai Composite index edged 0.2% higher, to 3,048.82. Markets in Greater China have been swaying in reaction to moves by Chinese regulators to prop up the ailing property market.

Shares in troubled developer Country Garden jumped 13% amid reports that it is included on a list of real estate companies eligible for financing support. Sino-Ocean Group Holding’s shares soared 18%.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.6% to 7,030.70. In South Korea, the Kospi slipped 2 points lower, to 2,509.73.

Bangkok’s SET lost 0.4% and the Taiex in Taiwan was down 0.2%. The Sensex in Mumbai opened up 0.1%.

On Wednesday, the S&P 500 rose 0.4% to 4,556.62. The Dow rose 0.5% to 35,273.03 and the Nasdaq gained 0.5% to 14,265.86.

Trading was muted ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday. U.S. markets will be open for half a day on Friday.

Technology and communications services stocks accounted for a big share of the gains for the S&P 500. Microsoft rose 1.3% and Google parent Alphabet added 1.1%.

Broadcom slipped 0.9% after announcing that it expects to complete its $69 billion deal to acquire VMWare on Wednesday after clearing all regulatory hurdles.

A 0.9% drop in oil prices weighed on energy companies. Energy giant Exxon Mobil fell 0.4% and oilfield services company Halliburton dropped 0.8%.

But it lifted airlines and other companies that stand to benefit from lower fuel costs. United Airlines rose 0.9% and American Airlines gained 1.5%. Cruise line operator Carnival rose 1.9%.

Nvidia fell 2.5%, despite handily beating analysts’ profit and revenue forecasts. Export restrictions to China are pressuring the company, though its stock has more than tripled this year amid booming demand for its chips in artificial intelligence applications.

Earnings reports continue to drift in. Department store operator Nordstrom fell 4.6% after trimming its profit forecast for the year. Clothing retailer Guess slumped 12.3% after cutting its financial forecast.

Tractor maker Deere, a bellwether for the agricultural industry, fell 3.1% after giving Wall Street a discouraging financial forecast and industry outlook.

Treasury yields were relatively steady. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 4.41% from 4.40% late Tuesday. The yield on the 2-year Treasury slipped to 4.88% from 4.89% late Tuesday.

A consumer sentiment survey by the University of Michigan showed that confidence remains strong. Wall Street has been closely watching consumer spending and confidence reports for more clues on the economy’s path ahead.

Forecasts for a potential recession have been pushed further out into 2024 while also being softened. The rate of inflation continues to ease, consumer spending remains solid and the economy is generally humming along. That has encouraged hopes, and bets, that the Federal Reserve is done raising interest rates and could soon consider cutting rates.

Fed officials, though, have said the outlook for the economy remains uncertain and they’ll make coming decisions on rates based on incoming reports. The Fed will get another big update next week when the government releases its October report for a key inflation measure tracked by the central bank.

In other trading Thursday, U.S. benchmark crude oil lost 91 cents to $76.19 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It dropped 67 cents to $77.10 per barrel on Wednesday.

Brent crude, the international pricing standard, gave up $1.06 to $80.90 per barrel.

The U.S. dollar slipped to 149.12 Japanese yen from 149.56 yen. The euro rose to $1.0905 from $1.0889.

Nigeria Hopeful of Economic Boom Following Investment Deals

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu is welcoming new trade agreements with Germany, including a deal that calls for the West African nation to export liquid natural gas.

The signing Tuesday of two memoranda of understanding between Nigerian companies and their German counterparts was the latest in a flurry of investment deals clinched by the Tinubu-led administration in recent months.

The signings come less than two weeks after Nigeria and Saudi Arabia agreed to a deal to revive the country’s nonfunctional refineries.

Tinubu is seeking to make the country attractive to investors in a bid to revive an economy bedeviled by slow growth, rising inflation and huge debt.

Under one deal, Riverside LNG of Nigeria will supply 850,000 tons of liquefied natural gas to Germany each year, working with German firm Johannes Schuetze Energy Import AG. The first delivery of gas is expected in 2026, and the president’s office said gas exports may increase in future years.

Authorities say the deal will make use of natural gas that otherwise would have been flared into the atmosphere. Nigeria has Africa’s largest gas reserves — over 5 trillion cubic meters — but due to poor processing infrastructure, the country burns off much of it every day.

Nigeria also secured a $500 million renewable energy deal with another German company. The deal calls for Germany’s DWS Group to supply funding for renewable energy projects in Nigeria, especially in rural areas.

The president’s spokesperson, Ajuri Ngelale, did not take calls for comment, but he spoke to Lagos-based Channels television about the president’s drive for foreign investments.

“He is personally conducting an open-door policy to investors from around the world, including here in Germany, to ensure that they have direct access to all of the regulators and government officials that will further enhance the environment in which foreign direct investments will be coming into the country,” Ngelale said.

This week Tinubu attended the G20 Compact with Africa Summit in Berlin that experts say is an avenue for African countries to expand their economies through investments and trade.

Emeka Okengwu, an economic analyst, said the investments are important.

“There’s no way $500 million can be wished away. It’s a big deal and should be celebrated,” Okengwu said. “Of course, it’s going to be creating jobs. The base of our productivity is energy. If we have energy, more industries will work, people can produce more, people can get jobs.”

He cautioned, however, “It is one thing to sign paper, and it is another thing to get the deal off the ground.”

Nigerian officials are also seeking investments in the electricity and rail transport sectors.

Newly Assertive Central Asia Rejects ‘Russia’s Backyard’ Label

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev bewildered Vladimir Putin and his entourage when, during a November 9 briefing in the Kazakh capital, he addressed the visiting Russian president in his native tongue.

While Tokayev spoke in Kazakh for less than 30 seconds, the gesture made a point: Kazakhstan is not Russia. Moscow is a strategic ally and neighbor with a shared past, but Kazakhstan is a sovereign nation.

“It takes courage,” Azamat Junisbai, professor at Pitzer College, remarked in a posting on X. “That President Tokayev made a point of delivering even a small part of his message in Qazaq is meaningful and appreciated by those who know the context.”

Junisbai’s posting, using the native rather than the more familiar Russian spelling for the language, itself reflected the former Soviet republic’s determination to establish its own identity apart from Moscow.

Changes in perception slow in coming

Tokayev and other Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev, have been traveling the world, signing major investment deals and hosting international summits at home, promoting their development agendas and visions for the region.

Yet many in the West have been slow to acknowledge the trend, including major news publications such as Reuters, Deutsche Welle, The Wall Street Journal and Time, all of which have recently referred to Central Asia as “Russia’s backyard.”

Bloomberg, for example, covered the French president’s visit to Central Asia this month with an attention-grabbing “Macron Lands in Putin’s Backyard Seeking New Friends and Uranium.”

Central Asian and some Western researchers take offense at the phrase, which they increasingly see as evidence of a colonial and condescending way of understanding a region that has its own history, culture and trajectory.

“Bloomberg reducing Kazakhstan/Central Asia to ‘Putin’s backyard’ is just a new level of ignorant, insulting, and unethical journalism,” wrote Akbota Karibayeva, a doctoral student from Kazakhstan at George Washington University, on X.

Asel Doolotkeldieva with the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, also reacted on X: “Bloomberg didn’t even bother to write the country’s name. Kazakhstan is just a ‘backyard.’ So tell me, how this Western imperial discourse is different from the Russian imperial discourse on Central Asia? How better you are?”

Eric Rudenshiold said in a recent Washington roundtable, “Central Asia is not a flyover zone. It is a destination.” The former National Security Council director for Central Asia under the Biden and Trump administrations is now a senior fellow at the Caspian Policy Center in Washington.

Central Asia wants “strong commitment”

Speaking remotely from Tashkent on the same panel discussion, Uzbek scholar Akram Umarov argued that countries seeking to boost relations with Central Asia need to appreciate that emerging identity.

“Central Asia is focused on its own development,” he said. “It wants a strong commitment and longstanding interest from its partners, including the United States.”

Part of that identity is forged by Central Asia’s location in a “tough neighborhood” — landlocked and surrounded by Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan — while standing at the crossroads between eastern and western Asia.

“We cannot change our geography, which always matters. You deal with what you have, so we need to be pragmatic,” Umarov said.

His Kazakh colleague Iskander Akylbayev added that Central Asia is more than simply an area connecting larger, more powerful states, but one that aims to transform itself into a commercial hub.

Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top 12 oil producers, “does not just want an energy-oriented cooperation. It wants to become a knowledge-based economy,” Akylbayev said, stressing the importance of regional connectivity, which could lure more investment to Central Asia and boost its image.

But the reality is more complicated, according to Uzbek and Kazakh officials, who acknowledge that the region’s leaders are deeply affected by a fear of Russian aggression and a lingering distrust of the U.S. and the EU. Central Asian governments find themselves hedging, seeking an elusive balance.

Speaking on background with VOA about Central Asia’s predicament, a Biden administration official echoed this concern: “How do you move your goods and push for your interests when you are surrounded by Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan?”

Openings for the U.S.

Rudenshiold sees the five Central Asian states “working together and breaking free from their former isolation to connect to a more global future — a process that has created significant new openings for the United States.”

China, the Gulf states and the EU are promising to invest billions that Central Asians hope will free them from “Russia’s stranglehold.” America’s pledge pales by comparison, Rudenshiold noted in his recent article for the Caspian Policy Center.

Kazakhstan is eager to develop a “Middle Corridor” through which East Asian goods can be transported to the West via its territory, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. Double-landlocked Uzbekistan is desperate to access seaports. Turkmenistan wants a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to facilitate the sale of its main resource.

“Washington is missing out on a critical opportunity to assist the region,” Rudenshiold said. “U.S. diplomats and development experts are sending the right messages to Central Asian capitals, but they don’t have sufficient resources to follow up.”

But how to convince the U.S. Congress that the region is worth investing in? It seems to some like a mission impossible, especially when many lawmakers — at least partly informed by reports describing the region as a backyard — still view Central Asian republics as vassals of Russia and China.

U.S. lawmakers could start by scrapping the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, Rudenshiold suggested. The law, adopted nearly 50 years ago originally to restrict trade with the Soviet Union, still blocks some countries from achieving most-favored nation trading status with the United States.

While the U.S. cannot replace Central Asia’s neighbors as trade partners, it can enable Central Asians “to do business on their own terms, not dictated by Moscow and Beijing,” Rudenshiold said.

Rights advocates counter that repealing Jackson-Vanik and awarding more trade benefits would be unwarranted before the region shows more progress on establishing the rule of law. They note that several Central Asian states still pursue authoritarian practices, jail journalists, restrict nongovernmental organizations and religious freedom, and maintain harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Rising regionalism

According to Edward Lemon, president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, “the most significant change in foreign relations in Central Asia over the past decade has been rising regionalism.”

“Visa regimes have been relaxed, borders reopened, trade surged and intraregional migration has increased,” Lemon told VOA.

However, he says, Central Asian leaders still do not act as a cohesive group. “Doing so would certainly increase their bargaining power.”

Lemon added that while striving to overcome the label of “Russia’s backyard,” “all have maintained strong ties with Moscow, which have not substantially changed since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

Largest Crypto Exchange Fined $4 Billion; CEO Pleads Guilty to Allowing Money Laundering

The U.S. government dealt a massive blow to Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, which agreed to pay a roughly $4 billion settlement Tuesday as its founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao pleaded guilty to a felony related to his failure to prevent money laundering on the platform. 

Zhao stepped down as the company’s chief executive, and Binance admitted to violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and apparent violations of sanctions programs, including its failure to implement reporting programs for suspicious transactions. 

“Using new technology to break the law does not make you a disruptor, it makes you a criminal,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who called the settlement one of the largest corporate penalties in the nation’s history. 

As part of the settlement agreement, the U.S. Treasury said Binance will be subject to five years of monitoring and “significant compliance undertakings, including to ensure Binance’s complete exit from the United States.” Binance is a Cayman Islands limited liability company. 

The cryptocurrency industry has been marred by scandals and market meltdowns. 

Rival of FTX founder

Zhao was perhaps best known as the chief rival to Sam Bankman-Fried, the 31-year-old founder of FTX, which was the second-largest crypto exchange before it collapsed last November. Bankman-Fried was convicted earlier this month of fraud for stealing at least $10 billion from customers and investors. 

Zhao, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Seattle on Tuesday to one count of failure to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering program. 

Magistrate Judge Brian A. Tsuchida questioned Zhao to make sure he understood the plea agreement, saying at one point: “You knew you didn’t have controls in place.” 

“Yes, your honor,” he replied. 

Binance wrote in a statement that it made “misguided decisions” as it quickly grew to become the world’s biggest crypto exchange, and said the settlement acknowledges its “responsibility for historical, criminal compliance violations.” 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Binance processed transitions by illicit actors, “supporting activities from child sexual abuse to illegal narcotics, to terrorism, across more than 100,000 transactions.” 

Binance did not file a single suspicious activity report on those transactions, Yellen said, and the company allowed more than 1.5 million virtual currency trades that violated U.S. sanctions, including ones involving Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, al-Qaida and other criminals. 

The judge set Zhao’s sentencing for February 23, however it’s likely to be delayed. He faces a possible guideline sentence range of up to 18 months. 

One of his attorneys, Mark Bartlett, noted that Zhao had been aware of the investigation since December 2020, and surrendered willingly even though the United Arab Emirates — where Zhao lives — has no extradition treaty with the U.S. 

“He decided to come here and face the consequences,” Bartlett said. “He’s sitting here. He pled guilty.” 

Zhao, who is married and has young children in the UAE, promised he would return to the U.S. for sentencing if allowed to stay there in the meantime. 

“I want to take responsibility and close this chapter in my life,” Zhao said. “I want to come back. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.” 

Company sent investor assets to third party

Zhao previously faced allegations of diverting customer funds, concealing the fact that the company was commingling billions of dollars in investor assets and sending them to a third party that Zhao also owned. 

Over the summer, Binance was accused of operating as an unregistered securities exchange and violating a slew of U.S. securities laws in a lawsuit from regulators. That case was similar to practices uncovered after the collapse of FTX. 

Zhao and Bankman-Fried were originally friendly competitors in the industry, with Binance investing in FTX when Bankman-Fried launched the exchange in 2019. However, the relationship between the two deteriorated, culminating in Zhao announcing he was selling all of his cryptocurrency investments in FTX in early November 2022. FTX filed for bankruptcy a week later. 

At this trial and in later public statements, Bankman-Fried tried cast blame on Binance and Zhao for allegedly orchestrating a run on the bank at FTX. 

A jury found Bankman-Fried guilty of wire fraud and several other charges. He is expected to be sentenced in March, where he could face decades in prison. 

Argentine Markets React With Optimism to Milei Election

Argentina’s stock market reacted with optimism Tuesday to the resounding election win by libertarian Javier Milei, despite the country being gripped by uncertainty over what changes the self-described “anarcho-capitalist” will bring.

Milei, a 53-year-old economist who has vowed to scrap multiple government departments and sometimes campaigned by waving a chainsaw from the stage, trounced Argentina’s long-dominant Peronist coalition as voters punished the government for decades of economic decline.

Latin America’s third-biggest economy is creaking under annual inflation of 143%.

Monday, the day after the election, was a public holiday in Argentina, delaying the market reaction. But immediately Tuesday, the stock market opened 20%, before easing off to gains of about 14%.

Argentina’s peso is strictly controlled, and the informal “blue dollar” exchange rate — seen as a barometer of panic in the country — reacted with moderation, rising slightly to 1,050 pesos to the dollar.

Milei has vowed to ditch the peso for the US dollar and shut down the central bank — which he accused of rampant money printing to finance government overspending — in a bid to halt inflation.

During his campaign he said he would slash state spending and ditch about 10 government ministries, among other controversial proposals.

However, he later toned down some of his rhetoric, leaving great uncertainty over his actual plans.

In his first interviews on Monday after the election, Milei warned it would take up to two years to tame inflation and laid out his plans to reform the state.

Milei said, “Everything that can be in the hands of the private sector is going to be in the hands of the private sector,” including the state oil company YPF and state media.

The rise on Argentina’s stock market was led by state oil company YPF, whose shares rose 34% after Milei’s remarks.

On Monday, YPF shares listed on Wall Street were up 40% at closing.

Milei on Monday held his first meeting with outgoing President Alberto Fernandez to coordinate the transition ahead of his inauguration on December 10.

Iran Lawmakers Pass Bill Raising Retirement Age for Men

Iranian lawmakers have approved legislation raising the retirement age for men to 62 and increasing the years of employment required to qualify for a full pension, state media reported.

The bill, which requires approval by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated vetting body, aims “to reduce pension fund shortfalls,” according to the official IRNA news agency.

In Sunday’s vote in the 290-seat parliament, 127 lawmakers voted in favor, 78 against and eight abstained, with the remainder absent.

The speaker of parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, said on Monday that male employees would have to work 35 years, instead of 30, before they can retire with a full pension, according to IRNA.

He said the retirement age for men would be raised from 60 to 62, but for women it would remain at 55.

Labor Minister Solat Mortazavi said the move was necessary to ensure that pension funds could continue to meet their obligations to beneficiaries.

In recent months, several officials have spoken out about severe shortfalls in pension funds, with then Labor Ministry official Sajjad Padam saying in May that Iran “might be forced to sell” territory to pay pensioners.

Padam was sacked shortly after his controversial remark.

Iran has been reeling from a crippling economic crisis marked by inflation of around 50% and a sharp depreciation of the rial against the dollar.

The crisis has been aggravated by U.S. sanctions reimposed in 2018 following Washington’s withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers.

Kenya Asks for a Billion-Dollar Loan from China

Kenya is struggling to repay a massive debt owed to China for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railroad that links the Kenyan cities of Mombasa and the capital, Nairobi. But President William Ruto is asking for an additional billion-dollar loan from China to complete some other stalled development projects in the country. Kennedy Wandera has more from Nairobi. Camera: Jimmy Makhulo

Cuban Private Grocery Stores Thrive, But Few Can Afford Them

Until recently, the space was the one-car garage of a private home in Cuba’s capital, Havana. Today, it is a well-stocked, if small, grocery store whose big board at the gate entices shoppers with such offerings as cooking oil, tomato sauce, Hershey’s cocoa powder, Nutella, shampoo, cookies and jam — a treasure trove in a country that is short of supplies.

The nameless shop in the residential neighborhood of El Vedado is one of dozens of tiny grocery stores that have sprung up around Cuba in recent months. Locals refer to them as “mipymes” — pronounced MEE-PEE-MEHS. The name derives from the Spanish words for the small- and medium-size enterprises that were first allowed to open in 2021.

By allowing the new businesses, the Cuban government hoped to help an economy in crisis and strengthen local production. The almost 9,000 enterprises approved so far include the likes of sewing workshops, fisheries and construction firms, but it is small retail shops like the one in Vedado that seem to be setting up the fastest.

They also have greater visibility among the population because they offer many products not available elsewhere and usually operate out of private homes or garages.

Yet despite their modest setup, their prices are far from affordable, even for a doctor or a teacher, who make about 7,000 Cuban pesos a month (about $28 in the parallel market).

For example, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of powdered milk from the Czech Republic costs 2,000 Cuban pesos (about $8). A jar of Spanish mayonnaise goes for $4. Two and a half kilos (about 5 pounds) of chicken imported from the United States cost $8. There are also less essential goods: a jar of Nutella for $5, a bottle of bubbly Spanish wine for $6.

The customers able to use these small shops include Cuban families who receive remittances from abroad, tourism workers, diplomats, employees of other small- and medium-size businesses, artists and high-performance athletes.

“This is a luxury,” Ania Espinosa, a state employee, said as she left one store in Havana, where she paid $1.50 (350 Cuban pesos) for a packet of potato chips for her daughter. “There are people who don’t earn enough money to shop at a mipyme, because everything is very expensive.”

In addition to her monthly state salary, Espinosa makes some additional income and receives remittances from her husband, who has lived in the U.S. for a year and a half and previously lived in Uruguay.

A few meters away, Ingracia Virgen Cruzata, a retiree, lamented the high prices at the shop. “I retired with 2,200 (Cuban pesos a month or $8.80) last year, and I can’t even buy a package of chicken,” she said.

Most of the products found in these stores are imported directly by the entrepreneurs through state-run import agencies, a system that has also opened the door to the emergence of bigger, better-stocked stores.

In recent weeks, a private store, accessible only to those who own a car, opened on the outskirts of Havana, featuring giant shelves full of imported products such as Tide detergent, M&M’s candy and Goya brand black beans. Because of its size (it’s at least 10 times larger than the store in Vedado) — and diverse offerings — it has come to be known as the “Cuban Costco.”

Cuba’s retail market has been very limited, and for decades the communist state held a monopoly on most forms of retail sales, import and export, under the argument that it is necessary to distribute products equitably.

The ration books that allow Cubans to buy small quantities of basic goods like rice, beans, eggs and sugar each month for payment equivalent to a few U.S. cents continue to be the basis of the model, allowing families to subsist for about 15 days. The rest of their diet must be acquired through other outlets, including state-owned stores and now the mipymes.

There are also state-run businesses offering a little more variety to complete domestic needs, but they charge in local debit or international credit cards. The novelty is that the small shops like the one in Vedado and bigger bodegas like the “Cuban Costco” are entirely private and accept payments in Cuban pesos.

“For the first time in 60 years, small- and medium-sized private corporations are now authorized by law. Now the challenge is for them to prosper in a very arid landscape for private initiative,” said Pedro Freyre, an analyst with the Florida-based Akerman Consulting and professor at Miami Law School.

“Cuba is a socialist country,” Freyre said. “The fundamental ideology has not changed. That’s still there. But I think that Cuba is in a very difficult economic moment and that has opened a door.”

Sugar Prices Rise Worldwide after Weather Damages Crops in Asia

Skyrocketing sugar prices left Ishaq Abdulraheem with few choices. Increasing the cost of bread would mean declining sales, so the Nigerian baker decided to cut his production by half.

For scores of other bakers struggling to stay afloat while enduring higher costs for fuel and flour, the stratospheric sugar prices proved to be the last straw, and they closed for good.

Sugar is needed to make bread, which is a staple for Nigeria’s 210 million people, and for many who are struggling to put food on the table, it offers a cheap source of calories. Surging sugar prices — an increase of 55% in two months — means fewer bakers and less bread.

“It is a very serious situation,” Abdulraheem said.

Sugar worldwide is trading at the highest prices since 2011, mainly due to lower global supplies after unusually dry weather damaged harvests in India and Thailand, the world’s second- and third-largest exporters.

This is just the latest hit for developing nations already coping with shortages in staples like rice and bans on food trade that have added to food inflation. All of it contributes to food insecurity because of the combined effects of the naturally occurring climate phenomenon El Nino, the war in Ukraine and weaker currencies. Wealthier Western nations can absorb the higher costs, but poorer nations are struggling.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is predicting a 2% decline in global sugar production in the 2023-24 season, compared with the previous year, translating to a loss of about 3.5 million metric tons, said Fabio Palmeri, an FAO global commodities market researcher. Increasingly, sugar is being used for biofuels like ethanol, so global reserves of sugar are at their lowest since 2009.

Brazil is the biggest sugar exporter, but its harvest will only help plug gaps later in 2024. Until then, import-dependent countries — like most of those in sub-Saharan Africa — remain vulnerable.

Nigeria, for instance, buys 98% of its raw sugar from other countries. In 2021, it banned imports of refined sugar that ran counter to a plan to build up domestic sugar processing and announced a $73 million project to expand sugar infrastructure. But those are longer-term strategies. Abuja traders like Abba Usman are facing problems now.

The same 50-kilogram bag of sugar that Usman bought a week ago for $66 now costs $81. As prices rise, his customers are dwindling.

“The price keeps increasing every day, and we don’t know why,” Usman said.

It’s partly due to the El Nino, a natural phenomenon that shifts global weather patterns and can cause extreme weather conditions ranging from drought to flooding. Scientists believe climate change is making El Nino stronger.

India endured its driest August in over a century, and crops in the western state of Maharashtra, which accounts for over a third of its sugarcane production, were stunted during the crucial growing phase.

India’s sugar production is likely to decline by 8% this year, according to the Indian Sugar Mills Association. The world’s most populated nation is also the biggest consumer of sugar and is now restricting sugar exports.

In Thailand, El Nino effects early in the growing season altered not just the quantity but also the quality of the harvest, said Naradhip Anantasuk, leader of the Thailand Sugar Planters Association. He expects only 76 million metric tons of sugarcane to be milled in the 2024 harvest season, compared with 93 million metric tons this year.

A report by U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted a 15% dip in output in Thailand in October.

Thailand reversed a hike in sugar prices within days, imposing price controls for the first time since 2018. Anantasuk said this would discourage farmers from growing sugar by capping their income.

“It’s like preventing the industry from growing, preventing an open competition,” he said.

Wholesale prices had been allowed to rise to help farmers cope with higher costs — partly due to government demands that they not burn their fields, which makes harvesting cheaper but envelops much of Thailand in heavy smog.

Looking ahead, Brazil’s harvest is forecast to be 20% bigger than last year’s, said Kelly Goughary, a senior research analyst at the agriculture data and analytics firm Gro Intelligence. But since the country is in the Southern Hemisphere, the boost to global supplies won’t come until March.

This is because of favorable weather earlier this year in Brazil along with an increase in areas where sugarcane was planted, according to the USDA.

The next few months are the greatest concern, said the FAO’s Palmeri. Population growth and rising sugar consumption will further strain sugar reserves, he said.

The world now has less than 68 days of sugar in stockpiles to meet its needs, compared with 106 days when they began declining in 2020, according to data from the USDA.

“It’s at the lowest levels since 2010,” said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Indonesia — the biggest sugar importer last year, according to the USDA — has cut back on imports and China, the No. 2 importer, was forced to release sugar from its stocks to offset high prices domestically for the first time in six years, Palmeri said.

For some countries, importing more expensive sugar eats up reserves of foreign currency like dollars and euros that also are needed to pay for oil and other crucial commodities, said El Mamoun Amrouk, an FAO economist.

That includes Kenya. Once self-sufficient in sugar, it now imports 200,000 metric tons a year from a regional trade bloc. In 2021, the government limited imports to protect local farmers from foreign competition, but it reversed that decision as harvests shrank due to insufficient rain and mismanagement.

The amount of sugar milled in Kenya fell steadily from June to August. To compensate, monthly imports doubled from September to October. Meanwhile, a 50-kilogram bag of local sugar doubled in price to $60, shopkeeper Joseph Kuraru said.

Back in Africa’s largest economy, the struggle of Nigerian bakers is a microcosm of the effects of rising food and fuel costs and the outsized impact of high sugar prices because it’s so ubiquitous. Abuja’s many bakeries use sugar both to sweeten cakes and to feed the yeast that makes bread rise.

Bread is often the only food poor households can afford. When bakers raise bread prices, as they did by 15% earlier this year, some people go hungry.

Not passing along higher costs is not an option, said Mansur Umar, president of the Nigerian Bakers’ Association.

“There is no way you can buy high and you sell low,” he said.

Ford Workers Approve Contract That Ended UAW Strike

The United Auto Workers union overwhelmingly ratified a new contract with Ford, a pact that, along with similar deals with General Motors and Stellantis, will raise pay across the industry, force automakers to absorb higher costs and help reshape the auto business as it shifts away from gasoline-fueled vehicles. 

Workers at Ford voted 69.3% in favor of the pact, which passed with nearly a 15,000-vote margin in balloting that ended early Saturday. Earlier this week, GM workers narrowly approved a similar contract. At Stellantis, 68.7% of workers favored ratification, an insurmountable lead with votes at only two small facilities left to be counted. 

The agreements, which run through April 2028, will end contentious talks that began last summer and led to six-week-long strikes at all three automakers. Shawn Fain, the pugnacious new UAW leader, had branded the companies enemies of the UAW who were led by overpaid CEOs, declaring the days of union cooperation with the automakers were over. 

After summerlong negotiations failed to produce a deal, Fain kicked off strikes on September 15 at one assembly plant at each company. The union later extended the strike to parts warehouses and other factories to try to intensify pressure on the automakers until tentative agreements were reached late in October. 

The new contract agreements were widely seen as a victory for the UAW. The companies agreed to dramatically raise pay for top-scale assembly plant workers, with increases and cost-of-living adjustments that would translate into 33% wage gains. Top assembly plant workers are to receive immediate 11% raises and will earn roughly $42 an hour when the contracts expire in April 2028. 

Under the agreements, the automakers also ended many of the multiple tiers of wages they had used to pay different workers. They also agreed in principle to bring new electric-vehicle battery plants into the national union contract. This provision will give the UAW an opportunity to unionize the EV battery plants, which will represent a rising share of industry jobs in the years ahead. 

“I think this is a huge win for the UAW that they got all three contracts ratified,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University. “It’s lifting the boats of all or many autoworkers.” 

Three nonunion, foreign automakers in the United States — Honda, Toyota and Hyundai — quickly responded to the UAW contract by raising wages for their factory workers. They did so after Fain said the UAW would mount an aggressive effort to unionize their plants. He also said the union would try to recruit workers at Tesla. 

Foreign automakers have argued in the past that their workers earn about the same as UAW members, thereby negating the need for a union. They also have accused the UAW of forcing GM and the former Chrysler into bankruptcy in 2009 and of engaging in corruption after federal prosecutors broke up a wide-ranging bribery and embezzlement scandal starting in 2017. 

But with Fain’s election and the new contracts, the union has “cured or readjusted all of that rhetoric,” Wheaton said. 

While wages at nonunion factories may be nearly equal, he said, UAW workers receive far better health care and retirement benefits, which is likely to be attractive to workers at nonunion plants as they age. 

Contracts with the auto companies should also lead to higher wages at auto-parts supply companies and in other industries, Wheaton said. 

“The union’s got way more power” because of the deals, said Mark McGill, a 67-year-old worker at Ford’s assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, where employees went on strike for the entire six weeks. “Look at everybody now. People want to unionize.” 

Taiwan-Lithuania Ties Face Uncertainty Two Years After Taiwan Office Opened

Two years after Taiwan opened a representative office in Lithuania, officials from both sides stress progress in bilateral relations while analysts cite risks that the deepened engagement could be affected by domestic political shift in Lithuania.

“After two years of engagement with Taiwan, we have some specific agreements with Taiwanese companies and organizations, especially in the field of semiconductors, but we shouldn’t neglect the risk of some changes in Lithuania’s current relationship with Taiwan and China caused by domestic political shifts,” Tomas Janeliunas, an international relations professor at Vilnius University, told VOA by phone.

He said that while the progress in bilateral relations has largely concentrated on deepening economic and trade exchanges, the overall trend is backed by the current Lithuanian government’s desire to expand cooperation with democracies.

“Before the parliamentary elections in 2020, the current government declared that they would like to foster relationships with democracies around the world, including expanding the relationship with Taiwan,” he said. “It included some economic prospects and cooperation in the field of technology, too.”

Over the last two years, Taiwan and Lithuania have opened trade offices in both capitals, Taipei and Vilnius, and trade between the two countries grew 50% from 2021 to 2022. One of Lithuania’s leading tech companies, Teltonika, signed an agreement with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, a government-funded institute, that would help it launch domestic semiconductor production in 2027 using Taiwanese technology.

In addition, Lithuanian companies involved in specialized laser technology agreed to work with the research institute to set up the Ultrafast Laser Technology Research and Innovation Center in Southern Taiwan, focusing on medical and industrial applications.

“So far, the cooperation has been fruitful and brought both sides some economic successes and benefits,” Karolis Zemaitis, Lithuania’s deputy economic minister, told VOA in an interview in Vilnius. “We are focusing on high-value-added sectors so high-tech is our main focus. This is a very equal bilateral exchange and cooperation where both sides can see some fruits and results.”

Apart from deepening economic ties, Taiwan and Lithuania have also increased bilateral exchanges through delegation visits and agreements to expand cooperation in such areas as scientific research and agriculture.

“The cooperation is based on values,” Eric Huang, Taiwan’s representative to Lithuania, told VOA in an interview in Vilnius. “For example, since [semiconductors are] such a sensitive area, I don’t think we will be able to implement cooperation without political trust. It is a multilayered cooperation based on values.”

At the European level, one positive development that extends from Lithuania’s efforts to deepen ties with Taiwan is the European Union’s plan to adopt an anti-coercion instrument, a mechanism that could help the EU deal with countries that try to force changes in EU policies by restricting trade. The European Parliament approved the plan in October after China launched economic retaliation against Lithuania over the opening of the Taiwanese representative office.

With Estonia expressing an interest in allowing Taiwan to open a representative office in Tallinn earlier this month, some analysts say how China responds to Estonia’s decision will test the effectiveness of the EU’s anti-coercion instruments, which allow Brussels to respond to external coercion forcefully.

“We should monitor whether China will respond to the case of Estonia in a belligerent manner,” Marcin Jerzewski, an analyst of EU-Taiwan relations at the European Values Center for Security Policy, told VOA by phone. “The EU’s reaction will be the perfect test of the sustainability of the developments that we have seen in the case of Lithuania.”

Despite some Lithuanian and Taiwanese officials’ positive views on the state of bilateral relations, there is still some skepticism about the prospect and benefits of deepening ties with Taiwan within the Lithuanian government.

In September, Asta Skaisgirytė, the chief foreign policy adviser to President Gitanas Nausėda, told Lithuanian National Television and Radio that the large amount of investment that Taiwan promised when it opened the representative office in Vilnius has not materialized at the scale that Lithuania may have anticipated.

Some analysts think Taiwan has not “done a very good job” of delivering the investment promises. “The appetite for investment in Lithuania is much bigger, but so far the only big deal that has been realized is the one with Teltonika,” Jerzewski told VOA. “Taiwan has to do proper expectation management.”

Apart from domestic skepticism about the economic benefit of the relationship with Taiwan, some analysts highlight the risk of progress in the bilateral relationship between Taiwan and Lithuania being stalled by potential regime changes in Lithuania.

“If we look at opinion polls, the current government is not performing really well, and the Social Democrats and Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Association are becoming the parties of choice in the presidential election scheduled for May 2024,” Jerzewski told VOA. “These are the two parties that have shown the greatest hesitation toward deepening ties with Taiwan.”

Janeliūnas said while some members of opposition parties have declared that they would consider changing the current direction of Lithuania’s relationship with China and Taiwan, he thinks it is unlikely they would make drastic changes to Vilnius’ ties with Taipei if they won the presidential election next year.

“I don’t believe they would go for a radical move like changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office, because the political costs of such a move would be quite high,” he told VOA. “When you are in opposition, you can be bold in your expressions. But when you are in office, you have to calculate all kinds of consequences.”

Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said last week officials from Lithuania and China had been talking about potentially normalizing diplomatic relations after Beijing downgraded diplomatic relations with Vilnius in 2021 following the opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.

While some observers view Lithuania’s move as the government’s response to domestic political pressure, Jerzewski said China could make recalibration of Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan as a condition for both sides to normalize diplomatic ties. “China might say they would only be willing to restore full diplomatic relations with Lithuania if the name of the Taiwanese representative office is amended,” he told VOA. 

Biden, 13 Leaders, Sign Indo-Pacific Economic Framework

U.S. President Joe Biden Thursday hailed a new economic agreement among 14 Asia Pacific countries aimed at countering China’s regional economic dominance, saying the deal leaders signed at a summit of regional economies – which is not a formal trade agreement – will address key issues such as future semiconductor shortages by improving supply chain resilience.

The goal of the new pact, said the 14 leaders in a joint statement, is to “promote workers’ rights, increase our capacity to prevent and respond to supply chain disruptions, strengthen our collaboration on the transition to clean economies, and combat corruption and improve the efficiency of tax administration.”

Biden, speaking Thursday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, acknowledged that negotiators failed to reach consensus on a key pillar of last year’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

“We still have more work to do, but we’ve made substantial progress,” he said. “In record time we’ve reached consensus on three of the pillars of the IPEF.” The IPEF has four pillars, summarized as trade, supply chains, clean energy and infrastructure, and tax and anti-corruption.

Biden also announced a program to work with startup businesses to raise capital. That effort is based on the U.S. Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which is seen as the U.S. answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In highlighting the plan, Biden also emphasized the importance of the U.S. private sector.

“You’ve heard every one of my colleagues say one time or another that this can’t be done without trillions of dollars of private sector investment to get hold of this and get hold of it quickly to give them confidence to make those investments,” Biden said. “That’s going to create a pipeline of projects in partner countries and then match private sector financing with these projects, and it’s going to give those private sector investors confidence that their investment will be made according to the highest standards. Government investment is not enough. We need to mobilize private investment.”

Critics say the new economic agreement lacks market access provisions.

“For a country like us, we have to have at least market access,” Indonesian CEO Anindya Bakrie told VOA on the sidelines of the summit.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said most Southeast Asian states are “tepid” about the deal.

The bottom line, he said, is, “It’s not a trade deal, and the U.S. is not offering any market access in IPEF. And the Southeast Asian states can contrast that with actual trade deals that have been passed in Asia over the last seven years, including major, major trade deals that involve China, South Korea, Japan, and other big economies, as well as ASEAN being in the middle of that.”

However, he said, “they’re not going to say to the United States coming in with IPEF over the last couple of years, we reject this. They’re cordial and they do want a greater U.S. security presence.”

Siobhan Das, executive director of the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce, took a rosier view.

“I actually believe it’s been successful already,” she said. “You’ve had 14 nations talking to each other for the last 18 months – how can that not be a success?”

Zack Cooper, a specialist in U.S. strategy in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA on Thursday, as the 14 leaders smiled and posed for a photo, that “everyone agrees that the Indo Pacific economic framework is probably the best the Biden administration is going to do for now.”

“But it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re happy with IPEF or that they’re going to be satisfied with the version of IPEF they’re getting at APEC, which does not include trade,” he said. “And so it’s probably better than nothing.”