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The Inside Story - Hedging Against China | Episode 109 TRANSCRIPT

The Inside Story - Hedging Against China | Episode 109 THUMBNAIL horizontal
The Inside Story - Hedging Against China | Episode 109 THUMBNAIL horizontal


The Inside Story: Hedging Against China

Episode 109 – September 14, 2023

Show Open:

Unidentified Narrator:

This week on The Inside Story...

VOA travels with President Biden to the G20 summit in New Delhi…

…and his historic visit to Hanoi…

…and with Vice President Harris to the US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in Jakarta.

From Indonesia, India and Vietnam, we focus on increased U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific as a hedge against China.

Plus, a pool reporter harassed by Indonesian officials, and the White House cries foul.

Now... on The Inside story... Hedging Against China

The Inside Story:

PATSY WIDAKUSWARA, VOA White House Bureau Chief:

From Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m Patsy Widakuswara, VOA White House Bureau Chief. I traveled here with Vice President Kamala Harris for the ASEAN Summit with leaders of Southeast Asian nations.

It’s part of a series of September visits to Asia by her and President Joe Biden to assert U.S. presence to hedge against China’s growing influence.

In this episode, we’ll also take you to India, where my colleague Anita Powell traveled with Biden for the G20 summit in New Delhi, followed by a historic visit to Hanoi, where the U.S. upgraded bilateral ties, providing Vietnam with additional weight to balance relations with Beijing.

In Jakarta, Harris, reaffirmed that the U.S. is committed to “ASEAN Centrality” – the principle that regional engagements are driven by the ten-country bloc, not by great powers. But there is no question that here too, geopolitical rivalry is front and center.

Amid sharpened geopolitical rivalry between the United States, China and Russia Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned against protracted conflicts. He delivered a forceful call to leaders to ease tensions and underscored the region’s need for stability to continue its decades-long peace and prosperity.

Joko Widodo, Indonesian President:

I implore all leaders of East Asian countries to make the East Asia Summit forum a place to strengthen collaboration, a place to strengthen cooperation rather than sharpen rivalries.


The summit brings together the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and 8 of its partners.

Leaders of the U.S., China and Russia chose to skip, sending instead their respective representatives, Vice President Kamala Harris, Premier Li Qiang and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Harris and Li held separate meetings with ASEAN, each highlighting the strength of their countries’ ties with the bloc.

Kamala Harris, US Vice President:

The United States has an enduring commitment to Southeast Asia and more broadly to the Indo-Pacific.

Li Qiang, Chinese Premier:

Over the past 10 years, China and ASEAN have forged ahead hand in hand and contributed to each other’s successes.


Summit leaders focused on the global impact of the war on Ukraine, the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s increasing assertiveness over disputed areas in the South China Sea, and ASEAN’s inability to urge the junta in Myanmar to abide by its peace plan.

António Guterres, United Nation Secretary-General:

The conflict is exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by women and girls, including sexual violence, forced marriage and human trafficking.


EAS ended Harris’ three-day trip to Jakarta. She returns to Washington Thursday as

President Joe Biden heads for the G20 in New Delhi, India.

I was delighted to travel here with the vice president to Jakarta, where I was born and raised.

I may just be the first Indonesian to fly home on Air Force Two. Definitely a proud immigrant moment for me.

Now let’s now go to New Delhi, where my colleague Anita Powell traveled with President Biden for the G20 summit, a meeting of leaders of the twenty largest economies.

ANITA POWELL, VOA White House Correspondent:

India is a rising power, and a key geopolitical balancer between U.S., China and Russia.

The Narendra Modi government is eager to flex the country’s diplomatic muscles, as they host the G20 summit here in New Delhi.

The G20 Summit was held far from Europe but it highlighted divisions over the war in Ukraine.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister:

I announce the closing of the G20 Summit. I hope the roadmap for one Earth, one family, one future is pleasant.


Russia and China were bnor represented by their leaders, but by Sergei Lavrov and Premier Kee Chung.

Both toughened their stance on the Ukraine war. Their divisions were so sharp that many were skeptical there would even be a summit communique.

U.S. President Joe Biden:

U.S. President Joe Biden:

There was sufficient agreement in the room for a just and lasting peace that upholds the principles of the UN Charter and respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.


But it was a narrow consensus achieved only after host country India suggested softening the language on Ukraine, highlighting human suffering and impact of the war without naming Russia as the aggressor.

Kyiv criticized the communiqué, but Moscow called it balanced.

Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister:

Largely thanks to the consolidated position of the global south who's defending its legitimate interests, it was possible to prevent the success of the West's attempt to again Ukraine eyes the entire agenda to the detriment of discussing the urgent problems of developing countries.


By contrast, there was widespread support for adding the African Union to achieve 20 making it the second regional bloc to become a permanent member after the European Union. It's part of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi's push to give a greater voice to the global south Brazil.

The group's next chair is expected to continue the global south agenda. Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Brazilian president:

Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Brazilian president,

if you want to make a difference, we have to put the reduction of inequality at the center of international agenda level now.


Peace remains elusive and geopolitical rivalries persist. Leaders put aside differences as they pay respects to the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi, a champion non violence during India's independence against the British were spoken of residents of India's capital on their feelings around this historic summit.

We spoke with residents in the news capital about their feelings on this historic summit and what they would like to see from the gathering. Many were quick to say they want “results.”

Sabina Samad, New Delhi Resident:

I really wish that we have a takeaway from the G20. You know where we speak about environmental changes or we speak about human .you know, maybe something good for humanity.


Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Sabina Samad, New Delhi Resident:


Inderjit Ding, Shop Owner:

The most important thing is that what I feel is that trade the on the economic front, we should have very, very good relations. So, the trade should increase so that there should be economic prosperity between all the G20 nations and ease of travel of the people to people contact that is very important. So we should, you know, make it very easy for people within the G 20 group to travel to each other's country. This is how we get to know each other.


We asked what they think of the tight security and usually quiet streets of the capital.

Ambika Anand, Social Media Influencer:

I love the makeover that Delhi got. I just wonder where the dogs and the beggars have gone, but I'm sure they are in great place.


India is proud civilization with a long history. I asked if it's been taken seriously on the world stage.

Inderjit Ding, Shop Owner:

I think the U.S. is taking India very, very seriously. Because at the moment, I think it was because of geopolitical because they have not very good relations with China. So, the only option within the South Asia is India, so they have to have they have it's a compulsion.

Mohini Gujral, Retiree:

Now it's taking India seriously. Initially, I don't think we were had yet so much of seeing the world map.


Top US officials are also here for the event, which they say is a key forum for developed and developing nations alike.

Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary:

I think it's important to emphasize that the G 20 is a prime contributor. To the solution of global challenges. We see it as a premier organization than on a global basis is taking on critical challenges facing the global economy and particularly the global south.


In response to a question from VOA, U.S. President Joe Biden said he met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang while both attended the recent G20 summit hosted by India. At a news conference in Hanoi, Biden said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the G20 talks may be a result of China’s domestic economic crisis.

Joe Biden, President of the United States:

He has his hands full right now. He has overwhelming unemployment with his youths. One of the major economic tenets in his plan isn't working at all. I'm not happy for that. But it's not working. So, he's trying to figure out, I suspect, I don’t know.


From New Delhi, we’ll travel to Hanoi, where Biden is set to upgrade U.S. diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This is a historic visit and a really big deal.

Vietnam and the U.S. have had 28 years of diplomatic relations, including ten years of what’s called a comprehensive partnership. The U.S. has wanted to upgrade ties for a few years now, but Vietnam had been hesitant to accept mainly due to concerns of potential backlash from China.

On Sunday in Hanoi, I asked the president when he would next speak with China’s leader and whether this was leading to instability.

Joe Biden, President of the United States:

Anita of VOA…


Well, let me ask you about — you — you’ve spent lots of time talking about all the time you spent with President Xi and the importance of leader-to-leader communication, yet you two haven’t spoken in 10 months. And I just wonder, are you worried that this is destabilizing the U.S.-China relationship? And what are you going to do about it?

And then, if I may on Ukraine, sir. Kyiv is upset that the G20 communiqué didn’t named Russia as the aggressor. Have you managed to rally more support or sympathy across the G20, or is this emerging as a wedge issue with the Global South? And does that change your commitment to Ukraine?

Joe Biden, President of the United States:

It’s not a wedge issue of the Global South. It’s a wedge issue with Russia, which was present, and with China, which was present — which was — had the representation.

And so — and, by the way, I am a — my — my team, my staff still meets with President Xi’s people and his Cabinet, and, in effect, I met with his number-two person here in — excuse me, in India today.

So, it’s not like there’s a — a crisis if I don’t personally speak to him. It would be better if I did, but I think —

Look, this is not a criticism; it’s an observation: He has his hands full right now. He has overwhelming unemployment with his youth. One of the major economic tenets of his plan isn’t working at all right now. I’m not happy for that. But it’s not working.

So, he’s trying to figure out, I suspect — I don’t know — just like I would, trying to figure out what to do about the particular crisis they’re having now.

But I don’t think it’s a crisis relating to conflict between China and the United States.

As a matter of fact, I think it’s less likely to cause that kind of conflict.


But, with China increasingly assertive in its territorial dispute with Hanoi in the South China Sea, Vietnam, a communist country and ideologically aligned with Beijing, is left with little choice but to diversify diplomatic ties.

NIKE CHING, VOA State Department Bureau:

A historic visit by U.S. President Joe Biden, his first since taking office in 2021.

The United States and Vietnam are elevating their relationship to that of a comprehensive strategic partnership - Hanoi's highest diplomatic status - as leaders from the two former rivals stand side by side.

Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary:

President Joe Biden and I, on behalf of both countries, have jointly agreed to elevate the relation between Vietnam and the United States to a comprehensive strategic partnership, for peace, cooperation, and sustainable development.


Washington and Hanoi still have disagreements over human rights issues, but China’s sweeping territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea have been driving the U.S. and Vietnam closer, according to analysts.

Greg Poling, Center for Strategic and International Studies:

This isn't about picking the U.S. camp. It is about keeping the U.S. close to maintain balance with China… Vietnam views China on this issue the same way the U.S. does; that is, Vietnam views China as an aggressor, as a coercive revisionist rule-breaking power, and so as the U.S. talks about freedom of navigation and the rule of law, Vietnam fully agrees on this issue.


But Biden insisted his Vietnam visit is "less about containing China."

President Joe Biden:

I don’t want to contain China. I just want to make sure that we have a relationship with China that is on the up and up, squared away, everybody knows what it’s all about.


The U.S. is Vietnam’s Number One export market. Biden's visit will also boost trade and investment between the two countries, as the U.S. tries to build a supply chain that is less reliant on China.

Nike Ching, VOA News, Seoul.


Back in Jakarta, there were questions about why Biden skipped the summits and sent Harris in his place.

Indonesians, especially Jakartans feel a connection with the U.S. Partly because former President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood here, as memorialized by this street vendor near where he went to school.

However, observers say that Indonesia, the largest economy in ASEAN, is drifting towards China’s sphere of influence, as the Joko Widodo government places “economic diplomacy” as its premier foreign policy goal.

We spoke with Indonesians, on whether they believe the country should align closer to Beijing, or Washington.

M. Nabila:

Indonesia leans more towards China. I see that we have more cooperation in infrastructure, environment, economy with them.

Ikhsan Raharjo:

On the economy side, objectively we are dominated by Chinese power. On the other hand, in terms of defense and security, the U.S. and its allies are dominant.

Natalia Santi:

Indonesia should drive ASEAN as the center in the Indo Pacific region, not lean to U.S. or China.


For more on U.S. engagement with the Indo Pacific, Anita Powell spoke with National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby, in New Delhi.


Thank you so much for joining us, John, here in New Delhi. Let’s start with the G20 summit, which has a theme of unity. Can you explain to us how the U.S. and other nations can reach unity amid the absence of two key leaders?

John Kirby, National Security Council Spokesman:

I think you're probably referring to Russia and China and Mr. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping]. Both Russia and China are represented here at the G20 through different levels of staff. So they're still here. They're still participants. They're still involved in the discussions and so we look forward to be able to work through with all members of the G20 on some of the key priorities that both [Indian] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and of course President [Joe] Biden have at this summit. … Although President Xi’s not here, and that is a disappointment to us, the Chinese are being represented at a leader level and that they are participants in these discussions and that's what the president wants to see.


Can you outline the argument that the president is making to G20 countries to rally support for Ukraine?

John Kirby, National Security Council Spokesman:

A big focus of the president today is going to be on economic opportunities and investment in lower- and middle-income countries. And I know you're probably thinking that doesn't have anything to do with Ukraine. But it has everything to do with Ukraine, because the war in Ukraine has put a huge strain on lower- and middle-income countries when it comes to food security, energy security, inflationary pressure – you can't discount the effect that Mr. Putin's war has had on the global economy. And what the president wants to pursue – and he'll mention the war in Ukraine specifically as he pursues this – are opportunities for these lower- and middle-income countries to be able to pursue investment opportunities and loans for infrastructure development, that are high quality, that are transparent, and that will really meet their local needs as best as possible. So the president fully intends to make the war in Ukraine a centerpiece of his discussions here today.


On U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific, can you take us through some of the signature initiatives – not just the military ones but the economic ones – and can you also respond to criticism that the U.S. doesn’t have the resources that China does in terms of offering economic opportunities?

John Kirby, National Security Council Spokesman:

United States and our allies and partners have a broad range of economic tools available to us – and again, through these multilateral development banks and the reforms that we're trying to pursue in terms of making more viable to boost the balance sheet of these development banks so that they can provide more alternatives to lower- and middle-income countries. This is not about the United States versus China in terms of economic development and infrastructure growth. China is a shareholder in the World Bank, China should have an interest in seeing that the World Bank is a more viable option for countries to go to for financial assistance and for again, credible, transparent loans.


On reports that India is looking at possible responses to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in response to discreet inquiries from the U.S. – is this a discussion that the U.S. is having with other G20 members at this summit?

John Kirby, National Security Council Spokesman:

Taiwan, in terms of military action, is not going to be a focus here at the G20. Nothing has changed about the United States and our policy. We continue to support the One China policy. We don't support independence for Taiwan. But we also don't support any changes to the status quo in a unilateral way, or in a way that uses force. And what the president would tell you is that everything he's doing in his foreign policy, particularly here in the Indo-Pacific, is about deterring conflict.

We don't seek conflict with China, we don't seek a conflict with anybody in the Indo-Pacific. We do seek competition, we do seek opportunities to economically compete because so much of the global economy is right here in the Indo-Pacific. Here at the G20, you're talking about 75% of the global economy represented in this group. So this isn't about Taiwan specifically, but it is about opening up opportunities to reduce the chances for conflict and to increase the opportunities that legitimate competition would offer to all members of the G20.


Moving on to the president’s visit to Vietnam, this is a historic visit and a big deal, the formation of a comprehensive strategic partnership. Can you answer how a liberal democracy like the United States can have a robust relationship with a communist country like Vietnam?

John Kirby, National Security Council Spokesman:

Just take a look at what the relationship has been like. It's been growing over the last decade or so. And the Vietnamese want a stronger relationship with the United States. The Vietnamese share many concerns that the United States has, both economically and from a security perspective in the region. We share a lot of interests, we also have a shared perspective of some of the challenges including the course of behavior of the PRC. It's really quite a stunning turn of events over recent decades to see our two countries working together this closely. The president is very excited about this stop. It is an important strategic partnership. We look to take it to the next level. And it comes at a very important time in the Indo-Pacific. So a lot on the agenda tomorrow in Hanoi and again the President's very much looking forward to it.


For our press freedom segment, I have a personal story.

At the end of the bilateral spray between Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joko Widodo on the sidelines of the summit, while press was being ushered out, I yelled out two questions.

To Harris, I asked about a deal on Indonesian nickel. Indonesia has the world’s largest reserves and Washington is interested in critical minerals for batteries of electric vehicles. But Indonesia’s mining practices, funded by Chinese investment, has been plagued with environmental concerns.

To Widodo, I asked in Indonesian whether he was disappointed that Biden did not attend.

Outside, I was surrounded by Indonesian presidential security, who tried to physically eject me and ban me from further events.

I stood my ground and so did officials from the Vice President’s Office.

After a tense twenty minutes, and half-heartedly promising I would not yell further questions, I was allowed into the hall for the US-ASEAN summit. A staff from the foreign ministry’s diplomatic security later apologized.

I posted on twitter and the incident turned viral. While I received support from Indonesian journalist groups, most of the comments condemned me for what they see as disrespectful behavior that’s “too Western.”

A week later I’m still getting slammed on social media but for me, it’s a small price to pay for standing up for press freedom.

For the latest news on the Indo Pacific, log on to VOA News dot com. For all things White House – related, follow me on twitter.

From all of us in Jakarta and Washington, I’m Patsy Widakuswara…


And I’m Anita Powell in New Delhi. We’ll see you next week, on the Inside Story.