U.S. President Joe Biden is emphasizing the power of the purse as part of his push to rally greater global support for Ukraine at a summit of the Group of 20 nations, by arguing that developing economies have been harmed by the conflict, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told VOA in an interview Saturday.
However, the summit is marked by the absence of two key leaders, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, both represented by senior government officials. It is an absence that could affect the meeting’s outcome.
Speaking on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Kirby also spoke about Biden’s planned visit to military forces in Alaska on the 22nd anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: 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?
Kirby: 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 … they are participants in these discussions and that's what the president wants to see.
VOA: Can you outline the argument that the president is making to G20 countries to rally support for Ukraine?
Kirby: 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.
VOA: 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?
Kirby: 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.
VOA: 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?
Kirby: 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.
VOA: 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?
Kirby: 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 [is] on the agenda tomorrow in Hanoi and, again, the President's very much looking forward to it.
VOA: And, finally, I invite you to reflect on the significance of the 22nd anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which happened before many current servicemembers were born. The president is going to commemorate the event with military members in Alaska, which is on the edge of a region now seen as a pacing threat to the United States. Was that part of the decision to mark the occasion in Alaska?
Kirby: The president’s looking forward to being able to commemorate the service and sacrifice that so many Americans have put forth since 9/11 in Alaska with members of the military and their families. Because he knows that although members of the military haven't been the only ones that have responded over the last 22 years to keep us safe, they certainly have been critical to that effort.
Alaska, no less, though it sits out further away from D.C. and from the sites that were affected on 9/11, it very much because of the capabilities we have in the high north is critical to keeping this country safe from a maritime and from an air perspective. …
It is true, we have many members of the military that were born after the 9/11 attacks. But I don't think you have to have been there, I don't think you have to have physically experienced the attacks on 9/11 to understand the impact that it had on our national security, the impact that it had on the security of our allies and partners and the challenges that we've all faced over the last 20 years in terms of dealing with the terrorism threat.
And just look at how far we've come. The integration and the sharing of intelligence — look at how decimated the capabilities of al-Qaida are now; it's a shadow of its former self.
And while the terrorist threat has metastasized, grown into different networks and spawned itself in other areas outside just the Middle East and the Levant, the United States, just unilaterally is far more capable of dealing with terrorist networks and terrorist threats as they arise through a really robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability that these young servicemembers are very much still involved in — whether it's in Africa, whether it's in Europe, whether it's in the Middle East, and yes, here in the Indo-Pacific, where there are still counterterrorism threats to deal with.