Congressional Trip to East Asia: A Debrief From Senator Christopher A. Coons

Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Christopher A. Coons

U.S. Senator from Delaware (D); Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 

Fred Hiatt

Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post

HIATT: All right. Good morning. I’m Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Washington Post. On behalf of the Council, thank you all for coming.

And thank you to Senator Coons. As you all know, Senator Coons was elected in 2010 after a brief but distinguished career in the law and local government, and has been a leader in the Senate in all kinds of bipartisan efforts, particularly of interest to some of us in human rights, co-leader of the Human Rights Caucus. And for many years—last time you came to the Post you had recently been to Africa.

And so today we’re here to talk about your turning a little bit of attention to East Asia. And you were there a couple weeks ago. Since then, relations have really gone downhill. What did you say while you were there? (Laughter.)


HIATT: I mean, let’s start with the news of the day. We seem to be in a trade war. The stock market’s unhappy. What do you make of it?

COONS: Well, I’m struck—first, thank you. Thank you, Fred. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you to Tom Mancinelli, who’s helped me prepare and helped make possible an excellent trip to East Asia.

Along with Senator Hassan, we went to Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan. And it’s striking to me the ways in which our president’s policies have strained some of our most important core alliances globally and directly challenged China. He has picked up the club of tariffs. For the first time in decades we have a Republican president who thinks imposing tariffs is the best tool of foreign policy. And before hitting China with it, he swung it around enough that he managed to hit most of our core allies with steel and aluminum tariffs that were national security justified. That’s not an approach I would have taken.

But I do recognize that it is long overdue that we challenge China’s theft of intellectual property, its forced technology transfer policies. There’s a range of actions and behaviors by China over recent decades that really needs to be addressed.

We’re celebrating forty years of the U.S.-China diplomatic relationship. There are lots of areas where we could and should cooperate. There’s lots of areas where we are competing.

But I think the stock market is, as you put it, unhappy—that’s not what my broker would call a six-hundred-point drop, but it’s unhappy. (Laughter.) I’d say there’s lots of folks who have mutual funds who are very unhappy. But I think the world is holding its breath to see what happens as the two largest economies in the world are increasingly directly challenging each other.

And I think one of the things that’s yet to be seen is how much the average American consumer/farmer/manufacturer will respond to 25 percent tariffs on more than $500 billion in goods, assuming that that is ultimately carried out. There was a New York Fed study that said this’ll cost American consumers something like 1.4 billion (dollars) a month. So it’s a tax. The president doesn’t seem clear-eyed about this. It does generate revenue through the CBP to the Treasury in the collection of tariffs. But it’s also, frankly, a surcharge or a tax on every American consumer. Our goods, many of which we consume from China, are steadily going up in price.

So we’ll see how long it lasts. I don’t see a strategy and an off ramp. But it is a—it is a contest worth having. My concern is that without a broader strategy, and without a clear understanding about what’s our goal, and without having engaged our allies, this may not end well.

HIATT: So I want to come back to the allies. But if we had a strategy, what would the goal be? It is realistic to say, oh, China has to change its economic model? I mean, what would reasonable objectives be in this case? And what do you think is achievable?

COONS: First would be to reset the U.S.-China relationship. We went through a long period of expectation that as China developed it would inevitably liberalize and open and become more Western. That seems to have been an incorrect assumption.

China has accomplished the single greatest elevation of people out of poverty probably in human history. Something like five hundred million Chinese in the twenty-five years since I last visited have emerged from—by global standards from poverty to something like the middle class and have produced a huge community of new consumers. That’s a great accomplishment and shouldn’t be overlooked.

There’s a huge range of areas where we could and should be cooperating. There’s very little focus on areas of cooperation and ways in which we can work with the Chinese on things from nuclear nonproliferation to combating pandemics like Ebola.

There are areas of competition that are going to remain areas of competition, and that’s fine, but we should be clear-eyed about it. But we don’t have enough of a—of a real conversation with China about areas of competition that might turn into areas of conflict. We have basic disagreement about values, most importantly human rights. But we have a basic disagreement about how to govern and organize society. That’s a conversation that will improve if it’s had directly and more frequently.

There was a first round of a U.S.-China dialogue, for example, on law enforcement matters. We should be continuing to engage with them. There’s areas like extradition where we have real disagreements that are rooted in the differences in our legal and political systems. But there’s areas like fentanyl, which was a routine subject of the conversations we had there in no small part because Senator Hassan represents New Hampshire, which is one of the two or three states most heavily affected. China has listed fentanyl, declared it a potential—a controlled substance. There is a significant amount of illicit fentanyl being exported into the United States, much of it through Mexico, that has a really devastating impact on our communities and our families. That’s an area where we ought to be recognizing and celebrating what progress we’ve made and working more closely with them.

So your question, how would you change the relationship? First, there are a few economic practices they have to change. It’s unacceptable for their development to come at our expense. The average American is angry because they think China stole our middle class and our future, and in some way that’s correct. There’s been a globally significant generational transfer of intellectual property—of inventions and innovation—from the United States to China that has fueled their rise. That’s a real problem.

But we should not expect that they’re going to change the fundamentals of how they order their society, and we should be prepared for a robust competition of ideas where—last point—the best thing we can do is improve the functioning of our democracy. If we want to show the developing world, if we want to show our allies in Eastern or Central Europe that real, robust democracy is the best way to organize a society, then we ought to act like it. You ought to be able to watch what’s going on on Capitol Hill and say, wow, they are solving the real problems facing the people of the United States rather than—

HIATT: And how’s that going?

COONS: You know, we have good days. (Laughter.) And we have a lot of bad days.

HIATT: I’ve had U.S. military leaders say to me China’s ultimate goal is to get the United States out of the Western Pacific altogether—out of Korea, out of South China Sea. And given that ultimately competition is not—that’s not acceptable to the United States, and so ultimately cooperation is not really an option. What do you think about that?

COONS: To paraphrase other speakers in other publications, that’s been described as the Thucydides Trap, meaning that, you know, over a majority of instances over hundreds of years when you have a rising power and an established power, it inevitably leads to conflict. It is appropriate for our military leaders to study and to prepare for and to plan for conflict. That’s one of their core jobs and missions. But I don’t believe that it’s inevitable that we will be in a military conflict.

One of the things that worries me is that I believe we have a president who sees our troop deployments to the Korean Peninsula and to Japan as a burden rather than something that we have done in partnership over seven decades and has helped secure stability and prosperity for the region. If you think that there’s an unpaid bar tab, that NATO and our Asian—East Asian allies have kind of stuck it to us and that we’re the chumps of history, you have a different view of this. And I am concerned that President Trump might abruptly in negotiations with Chairman Kim decide that withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula is a good idea. I don’t have a specific recent conversation to base that on, but I’ll tell you his broader conversations about our military presence around the world are disconcerting.

I do think you’re right that it is the strategic goal of China militarily to get us out of their immediate region and to—and to press and push and marginalize our significance. I don’t think it is China’s strategic intent, to the extent I have any insight into this, to seek a military conflict. Their long history suggests they would far prefer to sort of push and build relationships and ultimately end up in a place where conflict is unnecessary. We have to be clear-eyed about that.

I don’t feel like in the Congress or in the country we’ve had a real and meaningful conversation about what are the risks, what are the costs, what are the burdens that we are willing to undertake and bear in order to maintain a global system of alliances, particularly security alliances, that I view as absolutely central to our role in the world, to our prosperity, and to our security. If you take the 2016 election and the recent actions of our president as a proxy for that conversation, you could reach the conclusion that the American people are tired of being, as some call it, the world’s policeman, and want to put down the burdens of leading a global alliance of open societies, of developed democracies. I don’t agree with that. I actually don’t think that was the reasoned, thorough, complete conclusion of a majority of Americans. And I think that should be one of the core issues in the 2020 campaign.

HIATT: But do you see—I mean, one could argue that in your party you see the same strains. President Obama talked about it’s time for nation-building at home. Secretary Clinton was against TPP. So nobody in 2016 supported that kind of regional presence. Where do you see—who’s going to speak up for the values you just talked about?

COONS: Well, I’m trying to do so, apparently largely unsuccessfully. (Laughter.)

HIATT: Well, I—

COONS: I do think—

HIATT: I’d just point out you’re the only Democratic senator I think not running for president, so. (Laughter.)

COONS: It’s—you know, I have a—

HIATT: So far.

COONS: I have a great time at caucus lunches. You know, I introduce motions. I second them. We adopt them. (Laughter.) It’s a—it’s a wonderfully clubby lunch with myself these days. (Laughter.)

I think we—didn’t we just have Governor Bullock announce today? Yeah. It’s a—it’s a wonderful field. It is a wide cornucopia of options for the American people. (Laughter.)

I will say—you did not ask this, but I’ll offer that part of why I’m enthusiastically supporting Joe Biden, our former vice president, is I think foreign relations really matters. I think our network of alliances really matters, and I think he is uniquely qualified among the candidates to step into a role of rebuilding and reasserting the centrality of our alliances to our security and prosperity in a way unmatched. I mean, I know virtually all of the candidates. This is not meant as any disrespect towards their experience or their strategic vision. But thirty-six years in the Senate on the Foreign Relations Committee, eight years as the vice president of the United States has given him the opportunity to not just once or twice go to a country or attend a hearing, but to actually personally know virtually all of the modern leaders of the world. And I cannot imagine a Biden administration welcoming the prime minister of Hungary with no comments on human rights, on free press, on the importance of an open democracy, just to pick one example.

HIATT: Yeah. On the subject of human rights, to take it back to China, we are in a situation now where there may be a million people or more in camps in western China. There’s a(n) extradition treaty being considered in Hong Kong that many people see as a(n) existential threat to one country, two systems. And China is building this surveillance system—

COONS: Right.

HIATT: —you know perfecting it in western China, but all over the country with social credit scores. And you know, there was a time when I think a lot of us said, OK, they’ve brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but when they get to a certain level, if they want to keep growing they’re going to have to open up. They’re going to need rule of law. They’re going to need media.

COONS: Right.

HIATT: They seem to have a different theory of the case now, and so far it seems to be working. They’re prospering without opening up, and in fact they’re going the opposite direction. So one question is, do you think it is possible that new technologies have created a world where totalitarianism is going to be compatible with some modern version of national socialism and prosperity? Or is it still safe to say, oh, eventually they’re going to have to go the other way?

COONS: Well, I think there have been very concerning developments, obviously, in the United States, in Europe, in Asia in response to globalization and response to the pressures. The unequally enjoyed benefits of global development and prosperity has led to political movements in countries in Europe that I never thought we’d see. In some of our Scandinavian allies, for example, you’ve got far-right parties, nationalist parties, anti-immigrant parties winning seats in parliament, taking roles in governments. Obviously, Hungary, Poland, other countries in Eastern Europe have taken a decided turn.

In China, the point you raise is, I think, of the most important and pressing concern, which is that whether or not a state surveillance system is going to allow the intersection of artificial intelligence, 5G, Internet of Things, and incredibly high-quality surveillance systems with bulk storage. All of that in combination may make possible a 1984-style world where every citizen knows that they are either actively being surveilled or capable of being surveilled at any time and any place; and where what you say at home, what you say into your phone—which is always on and is everywhere—what you say in private conversations, what you post on the internet, what you search for has an impact, potentially, on whether your child gets into a better school, whether you get a better job, whether you move into a better apartment. And all of that has just sort of a dampening impact on any individual expression, on any debate or discussion, and on any of what we consider as the most fundamental aspects of a free society.

You said that one of the assumptions we had was that they would need media. Well, they’ve got a lot of media. I watched a fair amount of Chinese television while I was up at three, four in the morning in Beijing. They’ve got fifty channels, you know. They’ve got a channel devoted to every province. They’ve got all sorts of interesting content. But the idea of a free media, that is free to question and push the boundaries and challenge authority and offer alternative narratives and scenarios, that is not on the menu.

The different issues that you raised—Hong Kong and the extradition treaty, Xinjiang Province and the challenge of the treatment of Uighurs—are, I think, just examples of ways in which China’s approach puts stability, security, and the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party at the head, and puts questions of individual self-expression, liberty, self-determination at the very bottom.

I am gravely concerned that the Belt and Road Initiative may become a Belt, Road, Cellphone Initiative that is really designed to propagate the instrumentalities of 5G. I actually go from here to a hearing on the Senate Judiciary Committee about the intelligence and security implications of Huawei and 5G. I don’t think the United States has really grasped the extent to which even our core allies—a G-7 country like Italy, a core ally like the United Kingdom—are differing from us in our assessment of the intelligence threat of having Huawei integrated into the telecommunication systems of the coming decades. And I think we have a real challenge on our hands—both technologically in terms of deploying rapidly the best-in-class communications technology; having it be affordable, which is obviously an issue of state subsidy in terms of Huawei; but also having a united approach to this among our allies. Australia and New Zealand, obviously, have joined our assessment, but some of our core allies are questioning it or standing aside from it. That’s a big challenge for us.

HIATT: But this possibility that 1984 may work and that China may, in fact, be able to export the tools of it, as they have in Ethiopia—

COONS: Yeah.

HIATT: —until recently, as you know, and many other places, if we had a president who believed in American values, I will say—(laughter)—would it be part of our talks on trade? Would it—in addition to trying to show that democracy works at home, what would a President Biden—how would he respond to a situation like this? Would it be part of the foreign policy?

COONS: Absolutely.

HIATT: Is there anything the United States can do about it?

COONS: Absolutely. First, you’d heal some of the fissures, the divisions, the challenges we have with core allies that were caused by an abrupt withdrawal from virtually every multilateral agreement crafted in the last couple of years. So whether it’s leaving Paris or leaving the JCPOA, withdrawal from all of these agreements and an insistence on trying to replace them with America first or America-only bilateral deals on everything would, I suspect, largely be reversed, and a lot of those relationships invested in and healed, first.

Second, absolutely, the only way we have a deployable, secure 5G system is either with Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, or some combination of them. American telecom companies are playing and will play a central role in the deployment of 5G, both in the United States and globally. But in terms of developing affordable and deployable equipment sets, we’ve got to work closely with trusted allies.

Third, human rights would be on the menu—would be on the agenda of every single conversation. At the end of the day, one of the voices I most notice in its absence in the Senate is John McCain. I was just at the McCain Institute retreat out in Sedona and I am working with Senator Tillis, my co-chair of the Human Rights Caucus, to try and rename our Human Rights Caucus in the Senate for John. I think Senator McCain—you know, far from a perfect human, but a remarkable patriot and someone who dedicated his life to public service—really saw human rights as not one of many interests for us to discuss—we can talk about trade or economic interests or military security or human rights—but he saw the things that distinguish us as a democracy—a commitment to an open society, a free press, a democracy, to human rights—as being the distinguishing feature.

The reason why China doesn’t have a global network of genuine allies—they’ve got client states. They’ve got customers. They’ve got nervous neighbors. But they have a very different security architecture globally than we do because we have a very different values architecture. I think our model is what people all over the world yearn for, fight for, hope for. To be in Seoul and meet with a group of North Korean defectors, and hear their conversations with us about why they risked their lives to get out of North Korea and to get to a free society, was a reminder of just how fundamental this is.

I think the shocking incident with Khashoggi and the failure of the administration to ultimately hold the Saudis accountable for the planned torture and murder of a U.S.-based journalist in their consulate is a shameful chapter that we will not soon get past. There has been a real effort in the Senate to push for accountability and to change our relationship in the conduct of the war in Yemen, the work we’re doing with the Saudis in other areas. But I’m afraid that we will again see so-called national security justifications trump values. I don’t think our values can be left on the side in conversations about national security.

I hope it is possible to have a real and vigorous debate globally about values and human rights without that inevitably leading to some conflict with China. We have just different views of the individual and of the best way to organize society. But we are in a contest of ideas every bit as dynamic and every bit as demanding as we were in the Cold War. But this needs to be principally a debate and a contest of ideas, not a contest of force.

HIATT: So I think some people worry that—you know, you cite John McCain, you’re supporting Joe Biden, both men of a generation who grew up, one could say, politically at a time when it felt like America’s existence was in question and something was more important than party.

COONS: We are—we are in that stage. We are—we are back in that situation globally. I have no doubt about it.

HIATT: But how—where’s the—I mean, do you sense—where is the—where is—with no John McCain, with Biden of a certain age, do you see a new generation that feels that as you do? A lot of us don’t see very much of it in the Congress or on the campaign trail.

COONS: Interesting. So one of the things I’ve done virtually every year is to organize and lead a delegation to Africa, which is a continent of enormous promise but where there is exactly this challenge in terms of what’s the right model for governance and development unfolding right in front of us. Both Senator Bennet and Senator Booker made their first trips to Africa with me, and we went to countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe that are relatively mature emerging countries. We also went to Niger and Burkina Faso, which are countries that are on the verge of becoming failed states or fragile states under enormous pressure. And I think that was an eye-opening and informative experience for both of them in terms of the pressures on dozens and dozens of countries in the developing world.

The significance of the Chinese role in every one of the countries I’ve been to on the continent—which is now, I think, thirty—and the way in which China correctly perceives Africa as one of the most important continents, places of opportunity for this century—and the United States, a long and significant partner, is seemingly withdrawing. We have done transformative and wonderful things in public health. President Bush deserves a lot of credit for both the PEPFAR program, which changed the trajectory of a nearly continentwide pandemic, and the MCC—Millennium Challenge Corporation—a terrific model for how to do development with metrics in partnership with another country in a way that produces the kinds of results Americans would hope to see with our development dollars.

In the last Congress I worked with Bob Corker, with a bipartisan group in both chambers, and with the Trump administration to get the BUILD Act signed into law to double in size OPIC and to give us the tools to really reengage in the financing of infrastructure in the developing world with Western standards. In this Congress I’m working with Lindsey Graham on something called the Fragile States Act that would also have a ten-year strategy for the intersection of development, diplomacy, and defense in countries in the Sahel, for example, like Niger and Burkina Faso where we’ve got a lot of defense, we’ve got a lot of forward-deployed and engaged counterterrorism resources, but it ought to be matched with development and diplomacy, and in particular putting democracy and governance at the front of the agenda, not at the back of the agenda.

HIATT: We’re going to open—

COONS: Your question really was whether there is an emerging generation that shares that view.

HIATT: Yeah. Yeah.

COONS: Sorry. (Laughter.)

HIATT: Thank you for doing the follow up. (Laughter.)

COONS: But I don’t want to leave the topic without saying there are. And there are younger Republicans on Foreign Relations, younger Democrats on Foreign Relations, on Intelligence, on Armed Services who see the world this way, who see the challenge clearly, and who are working together to try and strengthen our progress on this. And I should have cited them as cosponsors of the BUILD Act and the fragile states bill.

HIATT: Yeah. I mean, I think one hopeful note is this incoming class of veterans, both Republican and Democrat—

COONS: Yes. Mmm hmm.

HIATT: —who have a sense of the world.

And you know, I would also say that one of the remarkable things John McCain always did was try and get people to come with him on trips.

COONS: Yes. Right.

HIATT: And as—you know, he didn’t care whether they were Democrat or Republican, or House or—

COONS: I was the beneficiary of that several times.

HIATT: And the fact that you’re doing the same thing in Africa is really important, I think, to the country’s future.

Let me ask one more thing before we open to come back to the strained alliances. You were in—as well as China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, you referred to the doubts that President Trump has sowed about U.S. stick-to-itiveness out there. Did you sense—how are Japan and Korea responding to that? Did you sense that they are in any way preparing for the possibility that we will withdraw, or what are they making of it?

COONS: So we got briefings both from leaders in U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea, but also met with national security advisers, foreign ministers, ministers of defense, and I got the sense that it is almost inconceivable that we would leave Japan. There is some concern about North Korea-South Korea, but you know, the Moon government and the Trump administration have different initial responses to North Korea; that’s been sort of reset and recalibrated, and I think there’s close coordination on this at this point.

I do think there is a lot of anxiety or questioning about what does this mean. The tariffs are taken as an indication of, what? I’m sorry, what? Now a renegotiation of cost-sharing in terms of the contributions for the construction of Camp Humphreys and the support for the facilitation of a large U.S. troop presence in both South Korea and Japan also is suggesting sort of a changed relationship.

No one articulated to me that they think anything like an American departure is imminent. No one breathed a word of that. But I think there is an underlying question about what is the trajectory, where are we headed here. These are societies that don’t think in terms of the next quarter and where China’s ascendancy regionally from a security perspective, as well economically and politically, is abundantly evident. Whether or not we are still going to in two, five, and ten years at least meet our current security commitments, I think, is openly being questioned.

HIATT: OK. Let’s let people ask questions. When you do, please identify yourself, try and keep the question brief, and just ask one question so everybody can get a chance. Yes?

Q: Tesi Schaffer from McLarty Associates.

You are arguing that this view of the world ought to be a key issue in the 2020 campaign. Thirty years in the Foreign Service makes me very sympathetic to that view.

COONS: Right.

Q: How would you tell that story if instead of being at the Council on Foreign Relations you were somewhere in semi-rural West Virginia or in agriculture-heavy South Dakota?

COONS: Or, let’s say hypothetically, doing a town hall in Cheswold, Delaware, something I recently did. One of the reasons I do town halls in all three counties in my state and have recently been doing them is to be held accountable to my own people around these same questions. I have done an annual conference in Delaware for the last eight years about our engagement with the world. USGLC now helps—they really run that and I show up. And Bob Corker came and was the keynote speaker alongside me to talk about the BUILD Act.

How do you make this case in a way that works? Agricultural communities in particular get the value of exports and get the value of access to emerging markets better than any communities in the country because they understand that agriculture remains vibrant in the United States only to the extent we get to export record amounts of, you know, in my state—I was about to say chickens, it’s all about chickens. That’s true in Delaware. That’s not true for everyone else. But I am the co-chair of the Chicken Caucus, believe it or not. (Laughter.) Which you may laugh at, but it is deadly serious work at home because we’re only able to sustain poultry on the Delmarva Peninsula to the extent we grow our export opportunities. And I could—I could give you a five-minute speech on chicken; I’m not going to do that. (Laughter.)

First, anybody who grows soybeans, wheat, corn, raises beef, raises pork, raises chicken—and that’s a lot of our country geographically—understands the importance of export markets and understands the importance of a free, fair, and open global market.

Second, the real question is the burdens because disproportionately it is smaller towns and rural areas that have sent soldiers overseas for what is now eighteen years of conflict. And some of you know that Dover, Delaware, is where every American who falls in combat first returns to our soil. That is a solemn obligation that the people of my state take very seriously, and it is a bracing reminder. We just had a young man who largely grew up in Delaware killed in combat in Afghanistan, and a huge turnout for his memorial at the University of Delaware. And it is a reminder that we have borne a lot of cost.

In almost every conversation about that I say, you know there have been more than a thousand NATO soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq? The little country of Denmark, when I visited there two summers ago, has lost fifty-four soldiers in combat. 9/11 was not an attack on Europe; 9/11 was an attack on the United States. And yet, the next day NATO for the first time invoked Article 5 and dozens of our allied countries deployed their troops to fight alongside ours. We are going to have more wars in the future somewhere in the world. Do you want to have allies who will come to the fight with us?

In terms of accessing the growing markets of the developing world, we have allies who could work with us to make sure that there is fairer trading system for our exports of all kinds, from manufacturers and from farmers. Do you want to have allies who are working shoulder to shoulder with us in opening up those markets?

Those two things require us to engage and respect our allies. That requires a role in the world. We don’t have to be the world’s policeman and respond to every war and to every conflict, and we don’t. But the last thing I often tell people, middle Americans, your average American, doesn’t think that our foreign assistance makes a difference or is appreciated. I went to Liberia during Ebola, and I will often repeat the things I saw and heard from the president down to people on the street. That is a nation that feels that they were saved by America. And there are many, many countries around the world that recognize our role in stabilizing the world and in pushing back on pandemics and poverty and hunger, and they are eternally grateful to us, and they simply want to be our partners in this century.

And that got a lot of hands. (Laughter.)

Q: Good morning. I’m Kristin Lord from IREX.

Senator Coons, knowing that you have a deep and deeply personal interest in Africa, I have a question about China’s strategy on the continent. How do you see China’s strategy in Africa evolving? And how would you like to see the U.S. strategy evolve, as well?

COONS: You know, China, I think, is learning through painful experience that investing in infrastructure and bringing Chinese workers, and not doing any skill training or technology transfer, and then having extractive and opaque contracts ultimately doesn’t work out well, either for a partner country or for China’s reputation on the continent. There have been some—for example, the election in Zambia a number of years ago, where they basically got thrown out. They managed to figure that out and were right back engaged within a matter of months. So I think China is changing some of its practices.

Xi Jinping, in opening the Belt and Road Conference this year, answered what were implicit criticisms of how Belt and Road projects are being run, and said that all such projects going forward will be transparent, will have appropriate environmental standards, will be done to global standards. We met with the head of the AIIB in Beijing, said the same thing—this is being run by sort of World Bank standards of transparency and labor and environment—and that’s great. It’ll be interesting to see if the reality matches the talking points.

A similar criticism could be leveled at us, but of a very different type. We say that we’re not withdrawing from engagement with Africa. We say we remain every bit as present and committed. Yet, the trade numbers are striking. I chaired the Africa Subcommittee my first four years. Since then, China’s trade with Africa has more than quadrupled; ours has dropped by more than half. Most African countries want and welcome American foreign direct investment and access to American companies. When we do have business relationships or through the MCC development relationships on the continent, we do it very differently. We do it in a way that promotes transparency, that has a relatively light American footprint and a fairly significant partnership and development footprint. All I—what I hear from every state is we just want more. Like, we want more of you. And we need to deploy more American private capital and more American resources, and we need to build on the very strong relationships that we have after decades of investing in combating, you know, tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.

HIATT: And why has trade dropped by half? That’s a stunning—

COONS: It is. Partly because that opportunity has been filled by others. It’s not just China that sees Africa as the continent of opportunity of this century. It’s also Brazil. It’s also Russia. It’s also Turkey. It’s also our EU allies.

The United States has stood still or gone sideways while other countries have invested significantly in opening new embassies, in sending trade missions, in sending heads of state, in convening conferences of—I mean, the Japanese are doing as much, if not more, in terms of trade development on the continent as we are. President Obama convened a conference of virtually every head of state of Africa here. In the four years since then China’s had one every year. We have not had a comparable second one. We are, I think, asleep at the switch in one of the most important development opportunities in human history.

Africa is the only continent that by its demographics is positioned for success in this century, where it is a majority young country that has a dramatically and rapidly growing workforce. There are obviously challenges and strains and issues in terms of access to infrastructure and to capital and to the economy and to stability. But most Americans and most American business leaders don’t realize the abundance of opportunities in Africa for meaningful investment. The Chinese see it more clearly because they have more recently come out of a stage of development where the kinds of challenges that are predominant in many rapidly growing African economies are peer and they can see it. We have a harder time seeing it.

HIATT: Interesting. Let’s go to the back. A lady all the way at the back.

Q: Chia Chang (ph) with United News Group, Taiwan. Hi, Senator.

China has opposed the Taiwan Assurance Act. How would you respond to them? And the Act supports Taiwan’s participation in international organization, yet Taiwan is not able to attend the WHA this year. What else can U.S. do more to support Taiwan’s participation? Thank you.

COONS: Well, we are celebrating the fortieth anniversary of two things this year: U.S.-China diplomatic relations and the Taiwan Relations Act. And as I said both in my visit to Taipei and in my meetings in Beijing, I support our current status quo.

I think we have a strong and important relationship between the United States and Taiwan. That’s why I visited the American Institute in Taiwan, a brand new more than $250 million facility that will allow the director of the American Institute to advocate for and represent American values and interests in Taiwan and the region well. You know, I think there’s a number of different legislative vehicles moving forward that are not designed to destabilize the status quo, they’re not designed to encourage or support independence, but rather to say this is an important relationship; we intend to continue investing in it. The dynamism, the creativity of Taiwan, of its economy, of its people, I think are well worth our continuing to invest in this ongoing relationship on the terms that it’s prospered over many decades.


Q: Thank you very much, Senator. My name is Tom Dine.

In your East Asia focus, and yet you’re referencing Africa and a few other places, you didn’t mention what some have called the counterweight to China, India.


Q: Could you comment on the role of South Asia and the South Asia-East Asia rivalry, but particularly India and China?

COONS: Absolutely. Thank you.

I’m meeting with India’s ambassador to the United States this week. I made a trip to India last year. We have in nomenclature reframed it as the Indo-Pacific, and it was interesting to me in every meeting to hear reference to the Indo-Pacific rather than the Pacific Rim or East Asia. And our challenge is moving that from rhetoric to reality.

The United States has, I think, a natural long-term close relationship with India. Like the United States, it is a multilingual, multiethnic, multifaith, vibrant democracy that has a wide-open press—(laughs)—and political system that has significant development challenges, but also has seen a significant rise in its prosperity, its security, and also has a remarkable diaspora community in the United States. There are lots of reasons, not least of which is our shared history of English common law and of the rules and traditions and systems of an open society and a democracy, that should make us very close and natural allies in the future in security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

Our challenge is in articulating that and engaging with that. Like, our security, political, and economic relationship with India needs to be strengthened. It has been in some ways needlessly strained by some issues in the United States relating to immigration that I think we could and should resolve, and I hear from the business community regularly they would welcome an opportunity to resolve. We have in our universities fairly robust exchanges, but they could be improved by almost an order of magnitude. The number of Indian universities that would welcome Americans studying and working as scholars, and vice versa, is almost unlimited. There are lots of areas where the United States and India can and should not just partner and cooperate, but build a future that is, I think, inclined more towards open societies.

So I think you will inevitably—no, not inevitably. That’s the whole point. I hope—(laughs)—that we will see a stronger and clearer strategy for how Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, India, and the United States plan for a better decade and century ahead for the Indo-Pacific. I haven’t yet heard or seen a clearly articulated strategy. And I appreciate your reminding me that I have so focused on my most recent trip that I had neglected a broader aperture which would bring into it one of the most significant democracies in the world.

HIATT: And, Senator, do you see any possible path for Congress in the next two years to do anything on immigration?

COONS: This is how you know I’m an optimist. (Laughs.) I keep meeting regularly with some of my Republican colleagues. You know, look, there is a simple sticking point, and we’ve had a number of broad bipartisan efforts to put together immigration bills that were either quite large or quite narrow. And in each instance the president initially says he’s—he welcomes it or he’s willing to work on it or he wants to negotiate, he wants to get something done, and then shoots it down.

The very last bill that I got to carry with Senator McCain was the Senate version of a bipartisan bill in the House that had fifty-four co-sponsors, an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. And the reason that got beaten on the floor was direct lobbying by the president and his secretary of homeland security.

So I think he could get a deal through the Senate relatively—not relatively—with a lot of hard work. But the absence of any real willingness by the president to actually enact something that would begin to address immigration, I think, is the single biggest barrier we face.


Q: Thank you, Senator. I’m Shila Oreste (ph) from Voice of America Persian Service.

You are one of the founding members of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. I want to ask you about Iran, a similar country to China when it comes to the human-rights violation and ranking on the capital punishment. We are witnessing a lot of developments in the Persian Gulf, and President Trump has called on Iran to call him for a new comprehensive agreement.

What, in your opinion, can or should Senate and in general Congress do in this regard?

COONS: First, we have folks in the Senate, myself included, who have not been briefed on the most recent intelligence that is cited as the reason for a significant mobilization, the aircraft carrier group bomber wing that are being deployed into the Persian Gulf.

There’s front-page news today about potential plans—and it is the Pentagon’s job to plan—but potential plans for a truly significant U.S. troop deployment to the Middle East. In the absence of any articulated strategy or briefing an update to members of both parties on committees other than Intelligence, it is hard to say exactly whether or not this next move is justified.

I ultimately supported the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, although I saw some of its obvious flaws, the more important of which was that it didn’t encompass ballistic-missile programs or really constrain Iran’s human-rights behavior, either internally or regionally.

I do think that it’s important for us to keep talking. Our European allies—this is one of the sources of some of the current distance with them is just how hard the world community worked, and in particular the United States and our European allies, to get Iran to a place where its nuclear program became transparent to the world, was documented and was put in a box—not a perfect box, not a permanent box, but a box for a decade.

I think we should be reengaging. And I would urge the Trump administration to work as hard diplomatically as they seem to be from the defense perspective in terms of planning, developing a strategy, and communicating it to Congress and to the world.

HIATT: Actually, right there. Yes.

Q: Linnea Duvall, State Department.

A lot of the things you mentioned about Africa and our approach to infrastructure there are very much echoed in our policy in Asia, where we’re trying to program infrastructure development, economic diplomacy. The BUILD Act has been a huge part of that, so thank you for your support. And we’re very excited about the rollout of the Development Finance Corporation, hopefully around October. And I think we’ll see economics as a big focus at the East Asia summit in November.

So my question for you is how do we strengthen our engagement with the private sector, who’s going to be a key partner in this, and talk to them about promoting American values in Asia and across the globe?

And then kind of a related question: To the extent you see a disconnect between the objectives of our economic engagement versus our trade policy, how do you talk to allies and partners about kind of the pull in different directions with those two things?

Thank you.

COONS: Two great questions.

You know, first, we have a lot of hard work between now and October to make sure the BUILD Act actually rolls out appropriately. There was, I think, an unfortunate decision in the House Appropriations Committee just last week to really shrink the scale of equity investment that I think has to be reversed. A hundred fifty million (dollars), which is the Senate current mark, strikes me as a paltry amount for us to be putting into this new tool.

I recognize OMB has a way of treating investments with great caution. But I think, you know, we’re in a contest here and we ought to bring our best tools to the mix. And American private capital and our ability to put together well-structured and transparent deals, particularly in infrastructure in the developing world, ought to be one of the things that we’re putting at the very forefront.

Just as a, I hope, relevant aside, Ambassador Hagerty and I co-authored an editorial in a Japanese newspaper about the importance of partnering. Virtually every one of our major allies has a development finance institution. So the idea that we alone would be financing development is something I really try and push back on to these skeptical middle Americans who say, well, hang on a minute; $60 billion, that’s an insane—this is a federal guarantee of new private capital investment.

And if it is syndicated, if it’s done in partnership with the Japanese and Australians or with the South Koreans and Indians or with the Norwegians and Germans, we can actually end up doing a lot of good in a lot of countries and demonstrate what transparent development deals that are positive for our positive country, and that meet sort of labor and environmental standards, what they look like. We’re not going to match at least the announced numbers of Belt and Road, but we can certainly sort of put our best foot forward.

How do I explain to allies the tension between some of the president’s recent trade actions and how we talk, or at least how I talk, about multilateral issues and values? It’s a fundamental challenge. We’ve had decades where the idea of protectionism and tariffs as the principal tool of global economics had gone away.

One of the real concerns I have is that, having picked up and swung this bat around quite a bit and broken a lot of china, as it were, it’s now going to be very hard for us to criticize competitors who do the same thing. We are going to be back to an era of, I think, vigorous protectionism and tariff contests—(background noise)—bless you—all over the world. And we are already seeing it in some of our competitors and close allies, that markets that were previously reducing in their barriers to entry are now reemerging, because it’s—speaking as a politician, it’s easy to say, you know, domestic, you know, buy American, close our doors; and in the developing world, even easier.

So I think we’re going to end up ruing the day that we picked up this particular tool and started using it quite so broadly and quite so aggressively.

(Background noise.) Bless you again.


Q: Thanks, Senator. I’m Dan Bob with Reischauer Center.

Question on TPP, which was completed by the Obama-Biden administration. And it was—it’s not only a trade deal. It has geostrategic implications, particularly for China. After the U.S. pulled out, the CPTPP, which replaced it, was constructed in such a way that the United States could easily rejoin.


Q: If there is a Biden administration—I know this is a difficult political issue—but could you see a way for a Biden administration to rejoin CPTPP?

COONS: I don’t speak for the Biden campaign or for Joe personally. I would advocate that. I would advocate that more as a matter of geopolitical strategy. I mean, I do think it also has very real trade benefits for us. I think some of our core allies came to the table and made real concessions in order to get that deal done, that the Europeans are now benefiting from and that we are now not benefiting from. And I think there’s a lot of export areas, agriculture in particular, but also biopharmaceuticals, financial services, data services, where we would see real growth and real opportunity if we were to reenter.

Frankly, what I thought TPP was trying to accomplish was raising the standards of global commerce in a way—with a breadth that China would inevitably be tested or challenged to join those same standards. Some characterized it as an attempt to sort of contain China and prevent its rise. I would instead characterize it as trying to set a new global standard for what fair trade should really look like.

It will be hotly debated if reconsidered in Congress. But we have to get to a place where the average American can see a positive future for them in an emerging globalized economy. That’s on us to do a better job of training and education, of access to health care, portable savings for retirement.

There’s lots of reasons why trade deals have taken the hit for what globalization has caused. And it is a failure of imagination and leadership on the part of those of us who are public servants in not having rolled out the ways in which middle America can both benefit from and be more secure in what seems like the wide-open world of a globalized economy. That’s the real challenge for us. And then, in terms of the geopolitics of it, I personally would advocate for reentering.

HIATT: And would the eleven welcome us back, no hard feelings, no—

COONS: Welcome us back. I don’t know about the hard feelings. It would take a while. But frankly, in every meeting I had, our allies want us back desperately. They are very eager for our active engagement.

HIATT: Louis.

Q: Louis Caldera, American University.

Senator—thank you.

Senator, I want to ask you about climate change, an area where we’re not leading as a country and where China is going to play a very important role. Did it come up in your discussions? How high a priority is it for you and your committee?

COONS: Absolutely it came up in my conversations.

One of the things I remind concerned allies around the world is that we have states and cities which in many cases would, on their own, be significant countries that are still committed to the Paris climate goals, that are still significantly investing in and moving towards a cleaner future.

Climate change is an existential threat. One of the things that I find interesting is the number of leaders in Fortune 50 companies, in the insurance industry, that are very conservative but who are now repeatedly and publicly saying we’re seeing the costs and we’re seeing the challenge, and we have to come up with a responsible and balanced approach to this, because we’re out of time.

Our challenge is going to be having one political party that wants us to race forward and do absolutely everything we can to decarbonize immediately, and another party that says, problem? There’s no particular problem. And I’m trying to craft some bipartisan solutions that are actually enactable, because the reality of our political system is we can give all the brave speeches we want to about the urgency of the climate threat, and we’ve got folks who have been saying this is a problem for decades.

I think Joe Biden’s first climate-change bill was introduced in 1986, if I’m not mistaken. So, I mean, we’ve had leaders in the Senate for decades saying this is a problem. We have to actually legislate around it. Because both China and India have and use abundant coal and they are still developing, we have to invest in carbon-neutral technologies, whether it is advanced modular nuclear or carbon capture and sequestration or both. They are. We should be as well.

And the one area where I think, you know, Lamar Alexander, Senator Alexander of Tennessee, has been a real leader and where we ought to take him up on it and we ought to embrace it is significantly increasing our investment in those technologies and deployment, because, frankly, the whole rest of the developed world can meet the Paris targets. If India and China do not, everything we do makes no difference. So we should be working very closely with them and we should be racing to develop and deploy those competing technologies first.

HIATT: Privilege of the chair. I wanted to ask one question about Korea. Did you get a sense that the scaling back of exercises is having any impact on readiness? How worried are people there?

COONS: I will tell you that the chief of staff of U.S. Forces Korea said we are still able to achieve our readiness and training goals. The exercises are not as visible. They are not as large. They are smaller in terms of scale and units, but they are still achieving our readiness and training goals.

I personally have concerns, if this continues for years, that it is exactly the complexity of very large training exercises that contributes to readiness. I also think there is a certain teaching value to being able to carry out large, multiple-nation, multiple-platform exercises.

I recognize that it’s entirely possible that we can go for a few years without very large-scale exercises without significant degradation in readiness. But I really doubt whether we can continue for five years or a decade without this having significant impacts on our capacity to project force in the region.

HIATT: Let’s take one more brief—

COONS: How about Jeff Pryce? His hand’s in front right there.

HIATT: —and easy question.

Q: Yeah. Jeff Pryce—

COONS: There are no easy questions from Jeff Pryce.

Q: Two questions about nuclear arms control. One is whether you got any impression from the South Koreans as to what they’re thinking about the progress of the nuclear-arms negotiations. And also it seems in the back of many people’s minds is their eventual relationship with the North, and if you have any thoughts on that.

And the second is about the INF Treaty, which is about medium-range land-based missiles. The principal strategic argument for withdrawal is to counter China. Other than Guam, we would have to base these missiles in allies like Japan. And I wonder if you got any feel from the Japanese that they were willing to express to you about their feelings about the end of the INF Treaty.

HIATT: Maybe yes or no.

COONS: Yes and no. (Laughter.) But in two sentences more each, yes, I mean, the Moon administration in South Korea has a—you know, has a different orientation in terms of their relationship with the North because they imagine a different future with the North than much of the rest of the region of the world. Reunification is a core issue; you know, reestablishing family-to-family contacts, economic ties. I mean, I think many of folks who I met with believe that openness and sort of a welcoming posture will accomplish more than a return to a combative posture and sort of jingoism.

We had a lot of conversations about the joint team for the upcoming Olympics and about the exchanges and optimism that Kim will yet come forward. And I pushed back on sort of the lack of any substantive steps by the DPRK.

In talking about the INF Treaty, the publicly stated justification for withdrawal was we need to redo an INF Treaty that includes China and its new capabilities. That’s great. I need to see more effort to actually negotiate, that while we’ve got this trade conflict going on and while we’re trying to reset the relationship with China, this would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that partnership around things like nonproliferation and arms-control agreements is going to be part of our new reset relationship with China. I don’t yet hear that that’s actually on the table. And I heard no offers from Japanese leaders to base nuclear missiles that would be aimed at China. That did not come up at all. So—

HIATT: Well, I think we’ve made the senator cover a lot of ground, geographically and otherwise. So please join me in thanking him. (Applause.)

COONS: Thank you.


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