Evan Feigenbaum joins Milan to discuss how U.S. president-elect Joe Biden may deal with China—and how that relationship may have significant consequences for India.
Of the many questions being asked about U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy, chief among them is how the new president might handle relations with China.
The future trajectory of U.S.-China relations matters not just for the U.S. and China, but it also has real implications for India—its economics, politics, and foreign policy.
On the podcast this week, Milan sits down with Evan Feigenbaum, Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on the Asia region—from China to Kazakhstan to India and Sri Lanka.
Evan talks to Milan about the Trump administration’s Asia legacy, India’s inward turn, and the strategic relevance of the Quad. Evan also has some useful, pithy advice for how the incoming Biden administration might position itself in the Asia-Pacific.
Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. Of the many questions being asked about President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy, chief among them is how the new president might handle relations with China. The future trajectory of U.S.-China relations matters not just for the US and China, but also has real implications for India, its economics, politics, and foreign policy. Now, there are many China experts out there I could have talked to, but I know few people who have not only studied China up close and personal but who have also immersed themselves in Asia as a whole, from Japan to Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka. One of those people is my guest today, Evan Feigenbaum, Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the person who also happens to be my boss. It is a pleasure to welcome him to the show for the very first time. Evan, thanks for coming on.
Thanks, man. Great to be here.
So, Evan, there are many places to start, but let me start by kind of rewinding the clock and looking at the past four years. You had a recent essay for Carnegie in which you had the following to say on U.S.-China relations in the era of Donald Trump, and I just want to quote a sentence you said: "Despite Trump's fighting words about competing with China, many Asian governments, broadly speaking, have viewed his administration's policies as inconsistent with this goal." So according to leaders in Asia, Evan, where do you think Trump's China policy went awry?
Well, I think before we get to the question of where it went awry, we need to reflect a little bit on where people in the region think it went right. The Trump administration, broadly speaking, took a more competitive approach to China. They talked a lot about strategic competition - it's enshrined in national documents, like the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy - and, broadly speaking, I think that was welcome, particularly for American alliance partners in the region, but for a lot of other countries in the region, too. Folks in Asia tend to think in terms of power balances and counterbalances, and so they've welcomed not just a vigorous American security role, but also an emphasis on strategic competition that fits with some of the imperatives they have as they deal with the strategic challenge from China. But the administration's approach, frankly, to my mind, was long on attitude and short on strategy. There was a big emphasis, particularly for people like Mike Pompeo, on giving speeches that I've described as firing off "nasty-grams" at Beijing. There's a lot of rhetorical flourishes that are designed to be confrontational but that, I think, to some people in the region, look hollow when weighed against policies that just weren't consistent with the more competitive approach that the administration claimed. And so, when you use the phrase "awry," I think for a lot of people in that region, there really are three things that went awry. The first of those, which really rankles a lot of people in the region - and it rankles me - is the relationship between China policy and Asia policy. I worked in the State Department, and for many years in the State Department, I worked for Richard Armitage, who was then the Deputy Secretary of State, and there is an aphorism that's attributed to Rich - he used to say, "To get China right, you've got to get Asia policy right." But I think if you look at the way China has become the central issue in virtually every relationship that the United States has in Asia, on every initiative, on every policy, and the way that Pompeo and other people talk about it, it's really Armitage upside down and in reverse: instead of getting China right by getting Asia policy right, they've essentially made every relationship, issue, and policy in Asia derivative of the American approach to China. And that really, I think, has rankled a lot of people in the region who think it's an attitude without a strategy. The second thing that went awry is trade policy, and that's a function of the President of the United States. His focus on trade imbalances, and the emphasis within that on bilateral trade deficit in goods - a lot of the partners the United States has needed in Asia, countries like Japan, like Australia, really have loathed President Trump's trade policies. In the first instance, they didn't like his lack of multilateral approach, and particularly the American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which 11 countries went on to complete without the United States in the room, even though the United States had influenced the original shape of that agreement. But they also loathed these bilateral policies and the emphasis, really, on picking trade fights with everybody. And I'll just give an example of that. Pompeo just went to Southeast Asia, and that Southeast Asia visit, which included a stop in Indonesia, was focused very much on competition with China. But at the same time you heard that rhetorical emphasis on China, the administration decided to pick trade fights simultaneously with Vietnam and Thailand - Vietnam over supposed currency manipulation, Thailand by revoking Thailand's duty-free access to the American market because of a fight over agriculture, particularly a focus on pork exports. And so the very countries that Pompeo is trying to rally are the ones that the United States with the other hand are picking trade fights with. The last thing is just the constant shots at allies: shots over burden-sharing, the President's implication that he would draw down US forces - which, for a lot of people in Asia, has a Carter-esque kind of throwback to President Carter threatening to withdraw US forces from Korea in the 1970s. So, that's where it went awry, and I think what Biden has an opportunity to do is to pursue this competitive approach that the Trump people talk about, but in a more systematic and regionalized way that reflects what I would call a more institutionalized approach to strategy.
Let me ask you, specifically, Evan, about what people in Delhi are saying and thinking. I think there is a legitimate fear that's being expressed - or you can tell me if it's legitimate or not - but there's a fear being expressed, perhaps in other Asian capitals as well, that an incoming Biden administration is going to soften America's approach to China in search of some kind of rapprochement with Beijing. You have a new president who thinks he can do things differently, thinks he can talk to Xi Jinping in a way that's going to get him to do X, Y, and Z. You've argued in print that you think this is unlikely. What gives you confidence in that assessment?
Well, the way I hear that framing most often is that a Biden administration would essentially rewind the clock back to President Obama's policies. And if you rewind the clock even just six years, it really was a very different time in the US-China relationship. The United States and China were negotiating a bilateral investment treaty, they had just completed a major climate-related agreement on hydrofluorocarbons, there was a pandemic - the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, the last major pandemic - and American and Chinese medical personnel and scientists were working side by side in Western Africa, in Sierra Leone. If you fast forward just six years to today, there's really been a wholesale change in the relationship. We're in the worst public health crisis in over 100 years, the worst economic crisis really maybe since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the US and China are not only not coordinating, they're actively obstructing one another. So, the question becomes, would a Biden administration in itself just rewind the clock? And my answer is no because of what I just described to you as wholesale change, and that wholesale change is really bipartisan. If you look at the coalitions on Capitol Hill on China, for instance, you've got people who agree with each other on absolutely nothing else but who are joining hands around China-related legislation or China-related initiatives - Tom Cotton, who's a very conservative Republican senator from Arkansas, joining with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a very liberal Democratic member of Congress from New York City, or Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts joining with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. So, these are strange political bedfellows, and it reflects, I think, the change. What's happened, really, is that security and economics in the US-China relationship largely proceeded in parallel lines, and if you rewind to Richard Nixon's visit in 1972, the United States and China were fighting a proxy war in Vietnam, and China was just crawling out of the Cultural Revolution, so from the very inception, these two countries have had clashing security concepts, and obvious differences of political system and ideology. That was a feature, not a bug, of their relationship. But once they began to exchange goods, capital, people, technology and data, on a large scale, you had a parallel track of economic integration, and what's happened is not only has that economic integration not mitigated security competition, but they've bled together in ways that mean that the economic relationships are now being refracted through the prism of security competition. That's a huge change, and that's one that I think is largely baked into the system now. So, I don't see that changing merely because the Democratic administration is coming into office. What the Biden people are - and as I say this as a former Bush appointee who served in a Republican administration - they are systematizers, institutionalists, and multilateralists in a way that has the potential to actually lock in some of the Trump policies, but in a much more systematic way. The best example of that - which will resonate with people in India, actually - is the use of American export controls and technology restraints. The United States has a long history with India on that, but what's happened is the US is using these tools now - the Commerce Department's entity list, or trying to make certain kinds of Chinese companies toxic by using legal instruments - it's using those and it's extraterritorialyzing the application of those in ways that I think not only will be difficult to unwind, but actually will be attractive to an administration that's looking to take a tougher approach to China. So, you will see some change - the climate issue will come back in a big way, I think there'll be shifts around visa policies for students and scholars from China and academic exchanges - but, broadly speaking, what I call the "securitization" of the US-China relationship will persist. It really has a bipartisan foundation now, and so I don't think people in India should suspect that that's simply going to be rewound because of a change of administration.
So, all of this talk on the security side begs the question, whither economics? Right? And if you look at this past week, you have 15 Asian nations signing RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - this is a new trade deal that encompasses more than 2 billion people, almost one third of the world's population, which, of course, comes on the heels of the ratification of another competing trade agreement, the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in which China does not figure. Now, there are two major Asian economies absent from both of these accords - that's something that you keep emphasizing - the United States and India. Let's start first with our own country, the United States. What do you think the US is missing out on by staying outside of the TPP? It was a member; it chose to withdraw from that process...
Well, the United States is effectively shedding one of the two major pillars of its leadership in Asia in the post-1945 period. So, when I think about the whys and hows of how the United States exercised power and leadership in that part of the world - and the exercise of power mattered because the United States, as a Pacific nation and intrinsically involved in the region, was a player because it was the principal provider of both security-related public goods and economic-related public goods and other benefits. On the security side, American alliances, forward-deployed military presence, carrier battle groups, these were the things that essentially enabled Asia's long peace. And the United States has been, either directly or indirectly, a provider of security for virtually every country in Asia. But that wasn't the end of the story of the American role in the region - the United States was not just a security provider, it was an economic public goods provider. For one thing, it was the demand for which Asia's export-led economies powered their way to prosperity. But it was also the leader on standard-setting, rule-setting, and trade liberalization, both on a regional and global level. So, when I look at the situation in Asia today, until China and Japan have a moment that is analogous to what happened between France and Germany in Europe after 1945 - essentially, a rapprochement that's enabled what I call the long peace - there will be no basis for collective security in the Pacific. And so the United States was, is, and, as far as my eyes can see, is going to be the principal provider of security - either directly for its allies or indirectly by providing, through presence and posture, a peace on which others can take a free ride or benefit - for virtually every country in the region except China. But, on the economic side, the United States' role as a demand-driver is shrinking precipitously, not just for intermediate but also for final demand, which means that as intra-Asian trade eclipses trans-Pacific trade, if the United States wants to be involved in a region on that other pillar of leadership, it needs to double down on being the standard-setter, the rule-writer, or at least participate in those processes. But what's happened in recent years is the United States has actually withdrawn from that standard-setting role. So, when you say to me, the United States is not in the TPP - and it cannot, by definition, be in the RCEP because it's built on an ASEAN+6 foundation - what I see is the United States essentially doubling down on its security role while withdrawing, either by choice or by default, from that economic role. And to merely be a security provider is not a sustainable role for the United States in the region. I sometimes joke that the United States will end up as the Hessians of Asia - the Hessians, having been the German soldiers that assisted the British in the Revolutionary War. It's a metaphor that resonates with Americans. That's not a good place for the United States to be. And so what I'd like to see is the United States to get back into the rule-writing, norm-setting, standard-setting game. And that's going to require in the first instance a reversal of the American approach to trade agreements in a region. But I don't think that's going to be easy for a president like Biden to do. It's not easy to sell trade agreements politically at the retail level in either party here, and so that's the challenge he has. But I think that's the danger: the United States will become a one-dimensional power in the region, and it's not a healthy place for the United States to be, or for the region itself.
Turning to the India side of the equation - we saw Foreign Minister Jaishankar talk about India's trade policy. He didn't necessarily mention RCEP by name, but he kind of spoke in the context of RCEP being sealed, and what he had to say was the following: "The effect of past trade agreements has been to de-industrialize some sectors in India. The consequences of future ones would lock us into global commitments, many of them not to our advantage. Those who argue stressing openness and efficiency do not present the full picture." So, that's what he had to say earlier this week - he said, instead, India was going to go do its own thing, strengthen itself by investing in kind of self-reliance and its domestic market. In your opinion, as you look forward, is this a viable strategy for India to pursue?
Well, it's not for me to tell India what its strategy should be, but I was very struck by that speech, and I'm very struck by the general tone among some people in India on the RCEP and on the kind of trade and investment landscape in Asia generally. In particular, what struck me about that emphasis on self-reliance is how disconnected it seems to someone like me who has spent so much time on East Asia from some of the dynamic trends in that part of the region, which you and I both know that Jaishankar understands very, very well, indeed. And so the overall zeitgeist of the pitch is that India is focused mainly on defending what it has rather than on leveraging opportunities to grow in a new way amid trends that are really shaping the world around it. And there are three of those trends that stand out for me, and that emphasis on Indian self-reliance just strikes me as somewhat out of whack with these. The first is the shift of supply chains and certain kinds of investments out of China because of the twin dynamics in China, where labor costs have been rising, but also China's trying to move its own industry up the value chain. And so, as China's industrial mix changes, there's a lot of competition across Asia, particularly but not only in Southeast Asia, to grab that share of investment and grab a piece of a de-China-fied supply chain. And so, in India, that emphasizing of self-reliance and hanging everything on this supposed attractiveness of its large domestic market flies in the face of what we see other countries in the region trying to do to position themselves for that shift. And this is really down to whether you want to be an export and supply chain player or not. And, to me - as you and I, Milan, have discussed in other contexts - exports are a good story for India. But that's not what I think of when I hear ministers talk about self-reliance or emphasizing mainly domestic demand. That gets us to the second trend, which is the reality of fierce and dynamic competition. Another way of putting that is to say that India doesn't design policies around investment trade in a vacuum. So, in the midst of a very dynamic set of shifts where countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand - even Cambodia and Bangladesh, in some sectors - are competing with one another to grab that share of the desinofied supply chain, you have other countries that are making big productivity gains, big infrastructure investments, reshaping factor policies around land or labor to be investment-friendly for foreign investors. And so, yeah, India can opt out, but those opportunities may pass it by as investors look to some of these other countries. So, you don't make policy in a vacuum, and it seems to me India needs to be thinking about the competitive landscape, not just vis-à-vis China, but between these other competitors for foreign investment and for that restructuring. The third trend is what we talked about earlier when we talked about the United States, which is just that the central strategic dynamic in Asia today is this process of integration that really is reshaping the region, particularly in East Asia, from a place that really was characterized by American centrality in every sphere in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s to one that is vastly more Asian and less Pacific. And when I pull that thread out three to five years, I just see the potential for regional integration to be the defining characteristic of Asia. And so, for India to just opt out of that - which I think is a risk - is something that will get baked in and not be easy to reverse or step back from three to five years from now. So, you know, you mentioned the Jaishankar speech, but I saw Shyam Saran, among others, giving some interviews, and I thought Shyam actually argued pretty convincingly when he said, "It's really incomplete to argue that people will just come to India on India's terms," I think is how he put it. And I just don't think the facts or the weight of evidence really bear that out. So, I'm not trying to argue what India strategy should or shouldn't be. I don't have the conceit that I can do that. But I can say that the competitive landscape around India is changing in ways that I think are not sufficiently part of the domestic debate inside of India.
So, could I come back to sort of play devil's advocate for a second? I think the view you hear sometimes in India is, "Look, we weren't a part of the TPP in the first instance. We were very much part of the RCEP, but when you look at where India is, in terms of the constraints on factor markets, the issues with domestic markets, with infrastructure, and so on and so forth - the RCEP essentially was going to be a kind of Trojan horse through which the Chinese were going to come and eat our lunch, and if not the Chinese, some other Southeast Asian country. So, therefore, it's better for us to kind of try to get our own house in order and try to come back in a future trade negotiation where we're much stronger, where we're more competitive and our industries are more competitive." Do you buy that sort of argument to say, "Now's not the time, but we need to do a couple of things first before we can take that next step?"
Well, I buy pieces of the analysis, but I don't ultimately buy the prescription. For one thing, India is not the only country in Asia that faces competition from China and is dealing with that set of problems, but you have all these countries in Southeast Asia and around the region that basically found ways to deal with that in the RCEP context. So, I think the danger is that that becomes kind of an analytical smokescreen for an inability to pursue the kinds of prescriptions that India needs. The second challenge is the one that I just identified for you, which is that you're not going to be able to just simply rewind the clock in three to five years. Frankly, it's analogous to the problem that the United States has on TPP. Even if the United States wanted to come back to TPP, the United States might regard the current TPP as the floor from which to negotiate more from, but in Tokyo and other places, they may regard the current TPP as the ceiling. And so India would face an analogous problem if it wants to come back to RCEP or any other agreement at a later date. The third problem is, frankly, that India has other reasons why it's not always investor friendly. You mentioned factor policies, and I think about manufacturing policy like Make In India. It's great to have a manufacturing policy, but if I recall correctly, the UPA-2 government also had a national manufacturing policy that was designed to take manufacturing from 16 to about 25% of GDP, but in the event, the share of manufacturing in Indian GDP actually shrank. And the reason it shrank is because manufacturing policy ultimately is not about manufacturing policy - it's about factor policies around land and labor. And you know better than I do where the obstacles have been in India at the federal level in terms of aligning state policies, and why some states have become pathfinders on those and it's been more of a problem in other places. So, I think investors look at India and see exciting opportunities at the state level in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, in Tamil Nadu, but it's both hard to design a national strategy that way and it's also harder to design a global strategy that integrates India with your regional strategy for Asia against that backdrop. And so I think that's the challenge. So, when I talk to investment audiences, and I talk up India, they'll say, "Well, yeah, what about Vietnam? What about country X?" And so that circles back to the point I made before about the competitive landscape. India can't view itself in a vacuum as opposed to against the backdrop of a really dynamic change in Asia, and a lot of countries that are aggressively trying to get everything from factor policies to investor policies to productivity gains right.
I feel like there is a bit of a tension in this conversation, right? Because you've been emphasizing a lot the integration that you see happening at least in parts of Asia, but you've also written about the tremendous fragmentation that we see. And so, in a recent piece for Carnegie - and we'll link to this in the show notes - you said, "As you look out to Asia's future, it's probably not going to be defined by the Sino-centrism that we fear in Washington or by the kind of American containment that Beijing is trying to ward off. Instead, what you might get is a kind of fragmented outcome where you have these shifting coalitions, you have a patchwork of rules, you have some norms here, some standards there, but not a kind of uniform approach." And so, as you are thinking about a change of regime here in the United States, how does a new president try to position his administration in this kind of what emerges as a very fractured landscape?
If I could be blunt about it, I think the core of it is to whine less, compete more, and leverage American strengths in the Asia that actually exists, not the one of American wishes, dreams, and fantasies. And the Asia that actually exists is one that - as you were saying, when you summarized my piece - is not just about the competition between the US and China, but actually is likely to become fragmented. And I say fragmentation because of what I said earlier when I was describing the Rich Armitage aphorism, which is the US has a tendency to view every issue, relationship, and policy in the region as part of a kind of deathmatch between the United States and China. And I think if you want to capture that in a pithy way, let's go back to the way President Obama used to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership when he was trying to sell it to domestic audiences, and he did this partly for political effect, but I think it's instructive. He was making a case, and he would say something like this: he'd say, "If the United States doesn't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region." And so the obvious implication of that is that there are only three possible futures for the region: either an American-centric one where we write the rules, a China-centric one where China writes the rules, or a kind of halfway house that looks like the Cold War where essentially the region divides into China-centric or American-centric blocks, and form drives function, and you get a kind of Cold War-like bipolarity. But that's not what's happening at all - not in the Asia that I see, anyway. And the TPP and the trade space is a really good example. If President Obama had been right that if we don't write the rules, China's going to write the rules, then logically, when President Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP, what should have happened is China should have come in and become the rule-writer. But, as we all know, that's not what happened. What happened is that the 11 remaining countries, largely with Japanese and Australian leadership, came together and finished the TPP with neither the United States nor China as parties to the agreement. And so I think that's actually symbolic of what I see happening across a variety of functions - trade, cross-border data access and transfers, and even infrastructure. On trade, the TPP showed that Obama was wrong: the rules got written, but not by the United States or China. On the data space, we already see the fragmentation. You know, the United States likes to talk about its Japanese and Indian partners in the context of the Quad, for example - this is the supposedly like-minded posse that's going to push back China-centric governance in the region. But when Prime Minister Abe of Japan tried to push forward a cross-border data initiative, the so-called Osaka initiative, who didn't sign up to it? India didn't sign up to it, in the first instance, and by the way, Indonesia - another Asian democracy that the United States sees as a like-minded partner - didn't sign up, either. And that's before we even get to India's domestic arrangements around things like data localization that our colleagues at Carnegie India work on. And then you've got infrastructure, where, yes, China has a China-style model of project finance, but the alternative to it - contrary to President Obama's formulation - is not an American competitive model of project finance but actually Japan, which is the principal funder of infrastructure in Southeast Asia and a lot of the big capital infrastructure projects in India. Delhi Metro, Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor, high speed rail for Indian railways - that's JBIC and JICA project financing. So, American messaging is stuck in this post-Obama rut where, as I was saying before, we tend to simplify everything. But that's not really an accurate view of the region, which is what I meant by wishes, dreams, and fantasies. And it's one that, absent American leadership and a more realistic view that the United States takes in the region, is likely to end up with function driving form rather than the other way around. So, I think that's the Asia I see emerging, one that's much more functional. One, it's much more fragmented, where third players - India, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Australia - have plenty of agency of their own, and India too has the opportunity to drive forward a lot of those processes. And I just think the United States needs to stop trying to rewind the clock back to the pre-Asian financial crisis period when it drove the region like a Colossus and figure out how to play to its strengths in this much more fragmented Asia. That's what I meant by neither Sino-centric nor American-centric. And I just don't see the United States doing that. It's not a Trump problem. It's a multi-administration, completely bipartisan problem, and a bunch of administrations have failed on that. My hope is that the Biden people begin to think a little bit differently, but I'm not optimistic.
So, one of the things you touched on was the Quad, and if you follow the South Asia security scene - on social media, anyway - one gets the impression that we are seeing a new kind of doubling down or reinvestment in the Quad. This is the strategic grouping of the US, Japan, Australia, India, hastened in part by China's handling of COVID and, of course, its kind of aggressive border actions vis-à-vis India. How do you kind of step back and rate the significance of the Quad in terms of kind of Asia's emerging security architecture? Do you think it's overhyped, or do you think that there is actually something very valuable and significant about the present moment?
I think there's something valuable and significant in the Quad. But I would begin with the quad with a lowercase Q, instead of the Quad with a capital Q. And what I mean by that is - I'm going to date myself here - I was around for the original quad, which was the tsunami core group that came together with the same four quad partners, the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, who for nine days after the Indian Ocean tsunami provided coordinated, rapid, and effective relief to affected countries. And they didn't have a secretariat, they didn't meet in storied capital cities, they didn't issue communiqués, and the definition of success was that the group disbanded when the mission had been achieved. So, I think if you rewind to that experience, it shows how, when function drives form rather than the other way around, and when you marry capacity and will to a particular functional problem, the quad partners can do an awful lot together very successfully. So, I'm a big believer in the quad, but I just tend to be a very functional guy. And so the challenge that I see now is that, as we've transitioned from quad with a lowercase Q to Quad with a capital Q, we're in danger of forming some group that now will have to grope for function and purpose rather than the other way around when the group is very successful. So I'm high on it, I'm a fan of it, because I've seen what that group of four can do, but I think the challenge now is that rather than groping for purpose, they need to become meaningful, real-world problem-solvers on issues where those four in particular can bring their capacity together in a way that showcases to the region what that partnership can do in a problem-solving sense, in the sense of effectiveness. And there aren't a lot of problems like that. So, what I think we're in danger of ending up with is a lot of meetings and communications but where we lose sight of functional purpose. And that would, tragically, make the Quad a lot more like a lot of other Asian geometry, where you just have a lot of geometry for its own sake, groping for purpose, rather than the other way around. So, my hope for the Quad is the Quad partners start to have a much more functional conversation, and it's something more than exercises and China's in the background, but that it can showcase not just to China through symbolic messaging but to the rest of the region through substantive problem solving what that marriage of capacity and will can really do.
Let me ask you about another kind of buzzword du jour, which is "the Indo-Pacific." You had, I thought, a fascinating Twitter thread the other day, which we'll link to, which raised a number of pretty difficult questions for US and, by extension, Indian policymakers. And one of the things you wrote is that, if America wants the Indo-Pacific to be a policy construct and not just a kind of geographic description, we've got to reorient our policies in ways that we haven't seen yet. And we've talked a lot in this conversation about the economic side, but I'm wondering, you know, what would it take in your view for the Indo-Pacific to take shape as an actual guidepost? Other than a TPP, some kind of trade partnership, are there other things that we should be contemplating as the United States to make the Indo-Pacific policy focus an actual policy?
I'm glad when you asked that question. You said "as the United States" - that clause is important because the United States was a latecomer to a lot of this Indo-Pacific talk. The Japanese were talking about it before the Americans, Australians were talking about it, you have it in some of the Japanese speeches and documents that go back further... I like the Indo-Pacific as a geographic concept because it begins to get you away from what I sometimes call fake Cold War geographies that treat Asia in a way that's really anomalous to the way it evolved through most of its history prior to 1945. For most of its history, Asia was this enormously integrated space, but the Cold War fragmented it, in my view, and US policy followed. So, for decades, the United States basically had three separate foreign policies for Asia. It had one for East Asia, which these days is mainly focused on security balancing against China. It had a second policy for South Asia, which prior to and even after so called de-hyphenation was basically heavily focused on the India-Pakistan dynamic. And then it had a third policy for Central Asia, which was basically not to regard Central Asia as Asia at all, right - that was Russia. And, in fact, when I became Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, I was the first person, if I'm not mistaken, in that job who really had a China background and not a Russia background, and my boss, Condi Rice, who was the Secretary of State, I remember her saying to me that my job was to help put the Asia back in Central Asia. Well, it was an effort even before we started talking about the Indo-Pacific to break down some of these artificial geographies and catch up to the way the region is beginning to evolve again, which is more like its historical norm rather than the Cold War anomaly. But I think the problem is, when you get from geographic concepts to actually get a policy mechanism, is that you bump up against two core challenges. One you already alluded to, which is that reality isn't really lining up with the Indo-Pacific. So, if you look at what we just said about trade, trade and investment standards in the region for the next generation are now going to be set by two agreements, the TPP and the RCEP, which don't include either the United States or India. So, what the heck is it to talk about the Indo-Pacific in the trade and investment space when the largest economy in the Indo- and the largest economy across the Pacific are both absent? It becomes a talking point. And it really doesn't reflect the degree to which they're MIA, missing in action from the standard-setting. The other problem is that the US - and this is specific to the United States - is just missing in action from, frankly, a lot of the Eurasian landmass. And I don't think people appreciate this, but the United States is diplomatically challenged and commercially irrelevant in about two thirds of the Eurasian landmass: all of Central Asia minus a couple of extractive sectors in Kazakhstan; most of South Asia minus India; still important in places like Sri Lanka as a trading partner, but all the big capital infrastructure in Sri Lanka is China and Japan; and then a lot of mainland Southeast Asia, too, minus Vietnam - Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, even Thailand, where the United States has begun to fade. So, the more integrated Asia becomes, the more Asian rather than Asia-Pacific, the more continental rather than subcontinental, the more Central Asian rather than Eurasian, the more the United States can't just presume its own centrality and actually needs to play to its strengths. And so I think the problem I have with "Indo-Pacific" is, if you want to make the geographic construct real, the United States needs to stop thinking in terms of apples-to-apples comparisons with the China that it's trying to compete with, which has the map in its favor because it's contiguous to all those sub-regions, and rather try to leverage its unique strengths a little bit better than it has: best-in-class companies, world-class technology, innovation, ecosystems, connections to the global capital markets, preponderant voting weight, and some of the international financial institutions. And what I see instead is Mike Pompeo running around talking about the Belt and Road and counter-Belt and Road. And, you know what - you can build a highway from Tajikistan to western China, and you can't build a bridge from Kazakhstan to California. So, the US needs to stop thinking in direct terms and make the Indo-Pacific real by leveraging its standard setting role and some of those strengths a little bit differently than it has. Otherwise, it's just going to be a geographic talking point, which is fine as it goes, conceptually, for the reason that I said, but not really useful as a touchstone for policy.
My guest on the show today is Evan Feigenbaum, Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I think he has shown in the past 40 minutes or so why he is just such a repository of knowledge and expertise on all of Asia, including Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. Evan, it's been kind of overdue to have you on the show. Thank you for coming on and sharing some of your time with us.
Thanks for having me. I mean, I love being your teammate, so it's great to be able to do the podcast since I'm a regular listener.
Likewise. Thanks again. Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. This podcast is an HT Smartcast original. It's available on htsmartcast.com, India's fastest-growing podcasting producing club. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review - it helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show, and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, grandtamasha.com. Production assistance comes from Jonathan Kay. Tim Martin is our audio engineer. Maya Krishna Rogers is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.