The United States will continue to push back against Beijing’s “false maritime claims,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, in response to China’s newly released 2023 map that has drawn the ire of India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In an interview with VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara on Friday, Kirby spoke about expectations for President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the G20 summit in New Delhi, followed by a visit to Hanoi, where the U.S. is expected to upgrade bilateral ties with Vietnam. He also previewed Vice President Kamala Harris’ upcoming engagement with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesia.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: We are hearing that [Chinese] President Xi Jinping may not be attending the G20. President Biden said that he hopes that he will still attend. Is there a sense that the president's disappointed? Was there a Biden-Xi meeting that is now not going to happen?
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator: As far as I know, there hasn't been a formal decision made by the [People’s Republic of China]. We'll certainly leave it to them to talk about his attendance plans. As the president said, we certainly hope that President Xi would attend.
G20 is an important forum, and this year there’s a focus on improving economic cooperation around the world. So clearly, there will be a role for the PRC, and we would hope that he will take advantage of that.
VOA: China just released its annual map that seems to be more expansive. It's not just the nine-dash line, it’s now the 10-dash line. How does the administration feel about this?
Kirby: We have been very, very consistent about pushing back on these false maritime claims of the PRC. This map doesn't change that policy. But it's not just what lines they draw on the map. It's about their coercive behavior. It's about the way they intimidate [their] neighbors and some of our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, to try to advance these false maritime claims.
VOA: Do we expect the vice president to be that forward leaning as you have laid out when she visits the region? Last year she went to Palawan Island. Can we expect that kind of a pushback this year?
Kirby: The vice president's very much looking forward to her participation at the ASEAN summit. She will not shy away from talking about our responsibilities as a Pacific power. She will not shy away about talking about how seriously we take our security commitments to our allies and partners throughout the region. Five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Indo-Pacific region.
VOA: One of the proposals that the president will bring to New Delhi is to bolster the capacity of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank to provide lending for global development projects as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
There is already a Western push for this. It was initially called Build Back Better World, B3W, and then the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, PGII and now this push to move together with the World Bank and the IMF. Is there a change of strategy or perhaps a scaling down of ambition here?
Kirby: Not at all. In fact, it's quite consistent with everything the president has been saying since he took office. The data show that his approach to economic prosperity, building from the bottom up and the middle out — Bidenomics — works here at home. The president believes that that same approach can work globally. One of the ways is through revitalizing multilateral development investment. That's why he has asked Congress for another $25 billion to reshape the World Bank. That's why he has appointed the new head of the World Bank.
And it's why the president — as you rightly said — also launched a couple years ago the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which is already starting to pay dividends. The PGII won't necessarily be on the agenda at the G20. But we're certainly hoping that we’ll get a chance to talk about it.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
VOA: So, this is in addition, not in place of the PGII program?
Kirby: The PGII is something separate and distinct from what we're trying to do in terms of the World Bank.
I think it's important to keep all this in context. Developing countries are looking for alternatives to the high interest loan programs that the PRC is putting out. What the president and the G7, G20 leaders wanted to put in place are alternatives to that so that developing countries who have been affected by the war in Ukraine can address those problems.
VOA: Is the president disappointed that — unlike in G20 Bali — this time around the G20 chair, India, is not inviting [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to speak?
Kirby: That's really up to the G20 chair. President Zelenskyy had a chance to address NATO allies in Vilnius not too long ago. He certainly has had multiple opportunities to speak with foreign leaders on his own. We believe that it's important that people stay focused on supporting Ukraine to the degree they can, but as far as an invitation, I’d refer you to the Indians.
VOA: Can we get some more clarity on a possible Biden - [Saudi Crown Prince] MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] meeting? Would this be a good opportunity to forward the agenda of a Saudi-Israel normalization?
Kirby: The president believes strongly that our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia is important. That's why we continue to work on that partnership and see it starting to bear fruit, in terms of the truce in Yemen.
In trying to encourage progress towards normalization with Israel, there's been a lot of good work with Saudi Arabia. The president looks forward to any opportunity to try to advance that, I just don't have anything on the schedule.
VOA: Our diplomatic sources say that Vietnam is interested in upgrading ties to not just a Strategic Partnership, but to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which would be a really big deal. Can you confirm this?
Kirby: I'm not in a position to confirm. We very much value the growing partnership that we have with Vietnam. Some of our interests are merging in ways that 10 to 15 years ago you couldn't even imagine.
The Vietnamese are of course concerned about PRC activities in their part of the Indo-Pacific. There's an awful lot of shared common interests here, and the president's looking forward to discussing how we can advance those interests. But I won't get ahead of specifics.
VOA: An op-ed in The Jakarta Post said that “ASEAN matters little if at all enough for Biden to skip the annual gathering, even though he will be in the neighborhood around that time.” Does ASEAN matter to the U.S. beyond officials such as yourself repeating statements of ASEAN centrality?
Kirby: Of course, it does. The president hosted a summit here in Washington, the first ever for ASEAN, and has engaged with ASEAN leaders on numerous occasions in person and, of course, virtually over the last two and a half years. And the vice president also believes strongly in the vibrancy of ASEAN and in our Indo-Pacific relationships.
The first two foreign leaders that President Biden invited to the White House were from Japan and South Korea. The first trip that the Secretary of Defense [Lloyd Austin] and Secretary of State [Antony Blinken] took together, was to the Indo-Pacific region. The president revitalized the Indo-Pacific Quad. The president was responsible for putting together AUKUS [Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States strategic partnership] which will allow us in concert with the United Kingdom to help Australia build a nuclear-powered submarine capability.
We are looking forward to participating in this ASEAN summit because ASEAN is an important forum for discussion and pursuit of these common interests and shared values, as well as addressing the challenges that those countries face. The United States wants to be part of that discussion. We have been with ASEAN since the very beginning of this administration, and we will certainly be going forward.