The Doorstep: What's Next for Biden's Asia Pivot? with Paul Saunders

September 2, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We're really looking forward to our conversation today with Paul Saunders, the president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, who also served as a senior advisor to Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, who will be talking with us about matters related to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economics and energy—but, first, turning it over to my co-host for important stories that you may have missed.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think, Nick—and we'll talk about this more with Paul—not a lot of people were talking about Vice President Harris' trip to Singapore and Vietnam. It got some coverage, but mostly because people wanted to hear what she said about Afghanistan and our pullout.

But why was she in Singapore? Why was she in Vietnam? It was to cooperate and create links economically for vaccines and other issues, to create stronger ties to a region that President Biden has made an area of focus, Asia and the Asia-Pacific Region, so I wanted to talk a little bit about her trip because it's so interesting for our listeners here at The Doorstep

One of the things she did in Hanoi was to open an office for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Maybe we don't realize that the CDC actually has a lot of international outposts. Did you realize that, Nick?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It's not something that I keep in the back of my mind. I usually think of the CDC as a domestic agency. 

Again, this goes back to our earlier Doorstep with Peter Sand about how we're all interconnected. Diseases don't recognize borders and oftentimes the best defense at home starts with an overseas presence. I think we don't think of that as we should because we think of this as a domestic issue, but often what we're doing overseas is the first barrier before something gets here, so I think it's an important reminder about why these foreign trips matter to people in their day-to-day lives.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And it was also important because she was there to announce a donation of a million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Vietnam, which is in fact only 2 percent vaccinated. I'm sitting here in New York and we're at [59 percent], so when I saw 2 percent I was really shocked. But before she was able to make her announcement, the Chinese got in there with their own announcement of a donation of vaccines to Vietnam. 

Why do you think that happened?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Well, it's the use of vaccines as tools of influence, of saying, "Who would you rather partner with? Who would you rather be aligned with?" I think that this question of competition really comes up with these vaccines.

But also this isn't altruism purely on either China's part or on America's part because an unvaccinated workforce is a workforce that gets sick and—as we discussed with Peter and as we'll discuss with Paul, and as we've discussed with other guests on The Doorstep—with interconnected supply chains, if you have a slowdown because people are sick, it manifests itself. 

Something we posted on The Doorstep Twitter page a few days ago is how a combination of an upsurge in Covid cases and shipping bottlenecks means that all across this country people who are going into their coffeeshops and wanting to get plastic cups of ice are finding that there are shortages of plastic cups.

So again, giving vaccines to Vietnam is a recognition that we need countries like Vietnam to be part of these supply chains and that Vietnamese who are getting sick aren't going to work, and if they're not going to work and goods aren't being produced, then sooner or later, like the butterfly effect, we feel it here.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Also I want to add to that that it's also part of China being very aggressive in its diplomacy with the United States, something we call "wolf warrior diplomacy," something that on September 23 we will be talking about with our special guest in our next book talk, so I want to also remind our audience to please join us for China's Civilian Army with Peter Martin on September 23.  We've seen right here today—or it was last week—an example of this wolf warrior diplomacy in action.

The other thing in action that happened over there that I think we need to talk about is before Vice President Harris was able to go from Singapore to Hanoi, her trip was delayed because of an incidence of the "Havana syndrome" potentially being explored. 

Can you talk to us a little bit about what this is, Nick, and why it's coming up now, and why it has been under the radar?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Havana syndrome refers to an outbreak of cases in our embassy in Cuba dating back several years where people working at the embassy were reporting headaches and they were reporting other health issues. The concern has been: Is this something that is caused by sonic devices that are deliberately set to incapacitate and injure people, with the understanding that this was targeting, or meant to target, people who were thought to be intelligence personnel, but of course there's no way for these devices to distinguish who people are or what their jobs are in an embassy.

But the question here is—again this gets at this point of ways in which countries compete and ways in which countries seek to inflict damage on each other—in this case are we starting to see more cases where U.S. officials are being targeted by competitor countries that are using these kinds of tools as a way to pressure and as a way to try to encourage the United States perhaps to pull back or not be as involved? 

It's a very interesting development, something that I think we're still trying to get our hands around in understanding the causes, and also trying to figure out what are ways in which we can defend against this.

But again this is part of this, as you mentioned, wolf warrior diplomacy. This is another way of trying to push back against U.S. engagement and to try to in this case make the stakes for engagement very personal with people by saying that "You are perhaps going to risk injury or a health condition by being part of America's forward presence in other parts of the world."

TATIANA SERAFIN: Super, super scary, and I think we will be hearing more about it.

Just this summer, the Senate passed the Havana Act, which was a bipartisan effort to look into the causes and the targets, and hopefully we'll be seeing more information about that in the news in the coming months.

Before we go to Paul Saunders, who I'm so excited to speak to, I want to give a shoutout to all the Paralympians in Tokyo. Good luck. They go until September 5, so please watch them. It is just as important as the Olympics.

With that, I can't wait. Let's start.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you for joining us, Paul. I think that this is really good timing in that while we've focused so much of our attention on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we have not really paid as much attention to the dynamics of what's happening in the rest of Asia. The vice president makes a trip to the region which was supposed to be the beginnings of the Biden era's pivot or rebalance to Asia, and almost no coverage of that. 

So, just opening it up to start with you, your sense of the vice president's visit? Was anything achieved? What signals does this send to our friends and partners in the region about our commitment? Certainly, some of the issues that were on the table prior to the withdrawal from Afghanistan for the region was very much not just simply the rise of China but also concerns about supply chains and energy and so on and so forth. Is all of this just on hold while we figure out Afghanistan? What's happening? Can you give us a sense of your take on what's going on in the region and what's happening with the U.S. approach?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Absolutely. Thanks very much, Nick and Tatiana. It's really a pleasure to be with you both here today.

Look, I think the most important thing about the vice president's trip to the region is that she went. Symbolically, I think that sends a very important signal about the U.S. interest and the U.S. stake in ASEAN, this ten-country group—Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and a number of others—that many Americans are familiar with.

It's a region that often doesn't really get the attention it deserves. Indonesia, in particular, I'd point to as a highly populous and an increasingly important economically country, but certainly a number of others are quite important to the United States.

Vietnam, a complex relationship obviously, but an increasingly important one strategically; also economically, as we see many supply chains coming out of China and going to other places, Vietnam certainly a big beneficiary of that.

I think it is quite important for the vice president to have visited. I wouldn't call the trip certainly a game changer or anything like that—diplomacy like this is typically measured in incremental progress rather than dramatic breakthroughs—but I think it is quite important that she went. There are a number of agreements that were signed and understandings reached, and we'll see over time how important all of that is. But certainly an important step forward.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: If I could, Paul, earlier this year the Energy Innovation Reform Project had released a pretty groundbreaking report about an energy partnership between the United States and its partners in this part of the world. It really was forward-looking about how do we both begin to transition away from hydrocarbons but also how do we keep the energy flowing that powers our economies, powers these supply chains that produce the goods that many of us are consuming as we speak.

Any sense from this trip that any part of the agenda that you laid out in that report earlier this year was acted on or that foundations were laid?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Certainly I think foundations were laid; I think that's the right way to look at it. Clean energy is clearly a very high priority for the Biden administration. There has been a lot of dialogue and engagement with others around those issues, and certainly if you look both at ASEAN and the wider Indo-Pacific region, it has been a very major focus of our efforts.

I think for ASEAN in particular there are real challenges. It's a region that depends still quite heavily on coal for power generation and there's a fairly clear reason for that, which is it's cheap. These are developing countries, and when they make decisions about their energy systems they have to consider not only their clean energy and climate goals, but their ability to provide reliable electricity to their people, their ability to provide access to electricity to people. 

Certainly there are varying levels of access across this region, but there are definitely some countries where there is not universal access to electricity, and they have to think about affordability, and then they have to balance all of that against the other investments that they need to make in other development areas—health, education, many other fields. So it's a big challenge.

They continue to rely heavily in most cases on coal, and I think it will be very important for the United States moving forward to try to look for ways to help all of them to move toward cleaner electricity. That may mean moving to other kinds of electricity generation or it may mean in some cases using carbon capture and storage together with coal to reduce the emissions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it's not only energy. When we look at the region, also what's fascinating for our Doorstep listeners is that—and we spoke about this, Paul—there are about 42,000 U.S. companies (the last statistic I have) that export to the ten countries in ASEAN. That is businesses at home doing business with a part of the world that, depending on which countries you include in South Asia or Southeast Asia, occupy a third of the planet, so that's nearly 2.5-to-3 billion people who are your potential customers.

And also as you mentioned, the supply to the United States—Vietnam has certainly been a great textile supplier in recent years for us. I think that this is so important for our listeners to understand why there might be a pivot—if you want to call it that, if you believe there's a pivot—to Asia or why we need to be discussing this area more.

I think traditionally we've looked at some of these destinations as just holiday destinations—Bali, Thailand.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Right.

TATIANA SERAFIN: But in fact there is a lot of economic activity not just in energy but in a lot of different fields and in a lot of supply chain fields, and I think that's what Vice President Harris was trying to support and indicate—particularly in Vietnam negotiating some of the strategic business partnerships—but the messaging got lost.

I know it got lost because there was another big news story out there, but is there something else that's getting lost in translation here? What can we do to make this a Doorstep issue, make people really understand the economic importance of this region?

PAUL SAUNDERS: You're absolutely right, Tatiana. It's a huge market. It's a growing market because many of these countries are really taking off. 

We've talked a number of times already about Vietnam, but Vietnam is one that is really in the process of moving up the value chain. You mentioned the textile exports, but as we see some kinds of manufacturing moving out of China and looking for other homes, I think we've increasingly seen Vietnam benefit from that in terms of increasingly technologically advanced manufacturing, and actually, as surprising as it may seem for Americans, having lower-cost labor actually than China as well.

So there is this big economic question, and I think there are a lot of American firms that are increasingly looking to the region both as a source of supply and also as a destination for exports.

The other thing we have to remember about this region as we look back historically but also think about the future is it's a region that really sits directly in the middle of the key shipping lanes from the Middle East to East Asia. 

People frequently will talk about the Straits of Malacca, for example, as kind of a key transportation chokepoint in between these two critical global regions. We don't really know how fast the global energy transition is going to go, how it's going to play out, what the technologies of the future will be. 

Certainly for the past and decades into the future the ability to move oil and gas quickly, safely, and cheaply from the Middle East to East Asia is going to be really critical to the global economy, there's just no question, and disruptions in that ability are going to affect Americans and everybody else very directly by increasing the costs of these global commodities, particularly in the case of oil.

Looking to natural gas, we have a number of countries in East Asia—and I would especially single out Japan and South Korea—that are really seeing their own energy futures focusing increasingly on hydrogen power as a source of clean-burning fuel, but one of the principal sources of that hydrogen is going to be natural gas with carbon capture—as it looks today at any rate; we'll see how things shape up—so those supply lines will probably remain very important into the future.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I'm so glad you mentioned that because we recently did a whole podcast on shipping and how shipping may bring back the concept of globalization, or the euphoria at least over an interconnected world that seems to have been lost a little bit during the pandemic when everybody became very isolated.

But really, to your point, we are all interconnected and the shipping lanes and certainly the seas are very important, so maybe a shift now to talk about our military presence in the oceans there and what we're doing because I think  that's also perhaps not covered as it should be.

Are we increasing our presence over in the South China Sea? What's going on? I know there have been some aggressive tactics by China. Can either of you comment on that?

PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, Nick, I would really defer to you on naval matters, but it is very clearly an area of increased focus for the United States and an area of increased concern.

Actually, if we look back at history, which often is useful, our role in World War II in Asia had a great deal to do with precisely the issues that we're talking about right now. 

People may not remember, but of course at the time Imperial Japan in the 1930s had occupied much of China and was pushing southward toward present-day Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The United States objected to that and imposed economic sanctions on Japan primarily in the form of an oil embargo, because at the time we were a very major oil exporter and a very major source of oil for Japan. 

The Japanese response to that, rather than giving in to our pressure in the way that many Americans hoped at the time, was to take the view that actually what they really needed to do was to control the oil resources in the Indonesia-Malaysia regions—which were also important sources of oil at that time and continue to be oil producers today—and the only way that Imperial Japan could do that on a sustainable basis was to try to take the U.S. Navy out of the equation in the Pacific for as long as they could, and there's kind of a straight line to the attack on Pearl Harbor

I certainly don't expect and would strenuously hope that we avoid anything similar to that in the future, but these are precisely the questions and precisely the issues that contributed to that conflict now s75 years ago. We just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Paul, that raises an interesting point that you're making there, and this perhaps ties to this larger question of the impact of Afghanistan, because this week former National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien seemed to suggest that one of the silver linings of the end of the mission in Afghanistan is the ability to redistribute resources and to think about the greater Indo-Pacific Basin and, as you said, the supply lines, securing the supply chains, making sure that energy is flowing, that all of that is taking place.

On the other hand, people have been raising the question "Does the way that the United States left Afghanistan create doubt or raise questions among allies and partners in that part of the world as to America's sustainability to being able to do the heavy lifting?"

Is there any sense you're getting from your contacts, people who you've been working with on these projects, that they have a shadow of doubt about whether or not the United States is prepared to do some of the heavy lifting for, as Tatiana said, creating and maintaining this infrastructure that connects us together, or does this again open up the door of "Well, perhaps we ought to be reaching some sort of accommodation with China?"

PAUL SAUNDERS: That's a really complex set of questions, Nick.

I think certainly, from my own conversations, it's clear that a number of people in allied nations have real questions and concerns about how the administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

There are two separate questions here really. One question is: Should the United States have remained in Afghanistan longer, and, if so, how long and in what way, and with what level of commitment? Or should we have withdrawn? That's one debate.

And then of course there's another debate around the specific execution of the withdrawal by the Biden administration and the president's determination to adhere to the August 31 deadline—decisions like the decision to evacuate the Bagram Airbase prior to evacuating Kabul and the International Airport there rather than perhaps afterward. There are a variety of other things that I think could have been done differently.

For many of our allies another really big question relates to consultation. This is less relevant for many of our allies in Asia that were not involved to the same extent as our European allies in Afghanistan. 

Certainly, I think many of our European allies are quite disturbed by the level of consultation—this has been in the press; it's not a particular secret—that officials in a number of NATO allied countries have been quite critical actually of the timing, the process, and particularly from their perspective the lack of consultation. We've even seen specifically in the case of the British and the U.S. relationship kind of this sniping really surrounding the terrorist attack outside the airport, with U.S. officials reportedly saying in briefings to others that happened in part because they had left this gate open longer to accommodate some British nationals who the British military was bringing back into the airport, and the British disputing that.

We've reached a level in some of these relationships where there are these battles over assigning blame, which is not a desirable situation to be in if the real goal of disengaging from this conflict was to allow us to focus on other challenges.

I think it is kind of indisputable, as the president said, that any complete withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to be messy. The question is: How messy did it have to be and did it have to be as messy as it was? And again, as you highlighted in your question there, with what consequences not only for Afghanistan and all of the people who we were trying to get out—most of whom we did get out, but many of whom we didn't—and also for the way that others around the world look at us?

My sense is that very few of our allies see it as our finest hour.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Not just our allies. I just wanted to bring it back to—and Nick mentioned China—how about Russia? Biden also made a point of saying that China and Russia are our biggest focuses in terms of their power positions in the world.

Does our "messiness" in Afghanistan give an opening to them to somehow undermine our efforts in Asia or in other places around the world by kind of saying, "Well, look what they've done; they're going to leave you too," or "America's finest hour is over?" Any sense of that happening, particularly with reference to Russia and China?

PAUL SAUNDERS: I think it's a really good question. It's very clear that Chinese and Russian officials already have done their utmost to convey precisely the message that you described there, Tatiana, that "America is finished," "America is unreliable," "America is incompetent." We've seen a great deal of that over the last couple of weeks, and I expect that we'll see a lot more of it going forward.

It's going to be certainly a challenge for the administration to overcome that, and it's going to be even more challenging, I think, with some of our European allies for the reasons that I just talked about, because there really will be some lingering ill will over what occurred.

Now, obviously, we're still allies and we have a lot of shared interests in everything else, but it is really a self-inflicted wound that will make everything that the administration wants to do, I expect, more challenging.

I think we can be sure that Chinese and Russian officials will be conveying this message not only in public but also in their private meetings with our allies and with others in the region. So that is going to be a tough one. That is going to be a tough one.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We talked about and we look a lot at China in the region. Certainly it's obvious what the interests of China are in South Asia and Southeast Asia, but what are Russia's interests there, for our listeners, and why should we be worried about Russia in that region? Any thoughts?

PAUL SAUNDERS: I think historically East Asia, or Southeast Asia for that matter, has not really had the priority for Russia that some other regions have had. If you look at Russian official strategy documents or foreign policy and security documents—the foreign policy concept and military doctrine, the national security strategy, other things like that—you generally see Europe really front and center; you see Central Asia certainly front and center; the Middle East perhaps not as high a priority as the other two but an increasingly important region for Russia particularly now with the ongoing operations in Syria; and Asia has often been, at least until recently, really secondary.

I think we've seen in recent years greater and greater and greater priority put on to the Russia-China relationship, and at the same time we see at various times kind of these interesting signals or suggestions perhaps that Russia is also trying to balance a little bit China itself in various ways.

We see sometimes, I think, some signs of that in the Russia-Japan relationship. We've talked a lot about Vietnam, but I'd say we also see at times some evidence of that in the Russia-Vietnam relationship, obviously with China and Vietnam having a history of tension and having fought their own war about 40 years ago now in the aftermath of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

I think for Russia the main stake really today is an economic one. As opportunities for Russia to get investment, to get high technology from the United States or from other Western countries are constrained, I think Russia is looking increasingly to Asia for those things—certainly to China, but also to Japan and Korea.

Russia is also looking for markets of course for certainly its natural gas exports, for its arms exports, for nuclear power plants.

Russia actually in the latter case of nuclear power has recently done something a little bit novel in building the Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant. It's just a big ship with a couple of nuclear reactors on it. It left the shipyard a while ago and has gone out to the Russian Far East. It's kind of the Arctic coastline but in the Far East; it's a town called Pevek, which is a coastal town in that part of Russia, and it is hooked up to the electric grid and providing power. The reason that I mention this is that I think there is an idea among some that systems like this actually could be very attractive for a number of developing countries with long coastlines. And it's something that one would not necessarily need to buy but might be able to rent or lease or something to provide power for a short term (compared to the life of a nuclear power plant) but perhaps for several years or something, as countries have expanding demand and maybe not all of the infrastructure that they need to support it.

There are a lot of different interests, I think, that Russia can have really across a broad range of issues.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It's fascinating, Paul, to hear you discuss all of this because I keep coming back to a previous Doorstep guest, Carolyn Kissane from New York University, and her concept of climate statecraft, that in the end all of these issues begin to collapse back into each other—the geopolitics, the energy, the economic—and that this really is the shape of things perhaps to come, that countries are going to look for the partners that will not only make them secure but will help them in their energy and economic needs, and to do so in a cleaner fashion moving forward. So I think this is a really dynamic moment that we're seeing, particularly in the United States' outreach to Southeast Asia with all of these elements coming in, but then also other countries are able or are trying to compete in the same way.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Absolutely. I think there's really a lot going on here. At least to my mind technology has increasingly become the ground on which we will compete with China, with Russia, and actually for that matter with our allies, because this is fundamentally economic and we're in economic competition with our allies as well as with our rivals.

We certainly see, maybe stepping outside of the energy space—in artificial intelligence and other kinds of computing, robotics, biotechnology—I think we increasingly see this effort by states to pour resources into these areas and we see increasingly statements by leaders and politicians reflecting the idea that these are the things that are going to shape the future, and I expect in no small part because the rate of technological change has accelerated to such an extent that the consequences of being left behind in one of these major transitions could be quite serious.

Certainly, Vladimir Putin, to the extent that people read his statements, has spoken actually quite forcefully on this topic: "If we don't succeed in these areas, we'll be left behind and that will be the end of it." He has been I think quite explicit about that, and I expect that leaders in a number of other countries feel the same way.

Now of course, there are only a relatively small number of countries compared to the 190 or whatever countries in the world that are able to compete in many of these areas, and some of them are only able to compete in perhaps a few select ones rather than across all of them. I think that's something from my point of view that really drives home the importance of the engagement and the partnerships.

And it's not just developing countries that have to be careful about how they spend their money, it's the United States and others too, and that kind of engagement is also a really terrific way to leverage our resources and to apply shared effort to common goals. I see those kinds of partnerships and that engagement as really critical in all of this too.

It's not easy to execute for the reason actually that I just mentioned: Even where our allies are concerned, we're economic competitors, so coming up with the right formula that allows us to work closely with allies on R&D in key areas and doing that while managing these competitive economic tensions I think will be very challenging, but I see it as really a central area of our future diplomacy, and I hope our imminent present-day diplomacy, because it's just such a key issue.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is such a great way to end our conversation today, that we need global engagement and the South Asia and Southeast Asia area is such an important area for us to remember and to consider, especially as Vice President Harris was just there.

Thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Thank you very much. It was really a pleasure to be with you both.

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