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Special Coverage: Analysis Of U.S.-China Relations And The G-20 Summit

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama is talking about his meetings with the leaders of China and Russia. All were in Hangzhou, China, for an economic summit.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And all had much more to talk about than just the economy. With Russia's Vladimir Putin, they talked cybersecurity.

MONTAGNE: U.S. officials have linked the hacking of Democratic Party headquarters to Russian spies, and Obama warned against a kind of cyber-arms race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Frankly, we've got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively. But our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber arena duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to, you know, other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody is acting responsibly.

MONTAGNE: That's President Obama at the G-2 summit in - G-20 summit in China. Let's talk more about this and more first, with White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: How much does this episode hang over U.S. relations with Russia?

HORSLEY: Well, the cybersecurity there - and that was one of several topics that President Obama discussed in his 90-minute pull aside with Vladimir Putin - some have seen Russian fingerprints on the digital hack of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as possibly a couple of state register of election offices or their databases. So that was the president sort of warning Russia, look, we've got enough trouble managing non-state actors and their cyber meddling. You don't want to go down that road.

The other big issues that preoccupied President Obama during his conversation with Vladimir Putin were, of course, Syria, where the Russians have been backing Bashar al-Assad. And after an earlier cease-fire that sort of was whittled away, bombing in Syria has ramped up and the president warned that that has really become a recruiting tool now for the Nusra front there. And then they also talked about Ukraine, which is another source of friction between the U.S. and Russia and that was also a topic when the president met with the president of France and the chancellor of Germany, and they said that they're not going to relax sanctions on Russia until the Minsk agreement is...

INSKEEP: And let's just get a key phrase when they were talking about Syria, what to do about Syria, I believe you noted, Scott, that the president's phrase was our meeting was constructive, but not conclusive.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: In other words, we got nowhere. Now, we also were hearing or thinking about China because this meeting took place in China - in Hangzhou, China, which is the host of the G-20 summit and we're also joined this morning by Robert Daly of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Did you hear anything new about the U.S. strategy for dealing with a rising China?

ROBERT DALY: No. We heard, I think, a very sophisticated, nuanced description from President Obama as we often do about the fact that this is both a co-operative and a competitive relationship, and we need to work together to solve problems when we can jointly and be frank about differences. And so issue area by issue area, he has, I think, a very useful take on how to work with China. And yet, there's no answer to the overarching question. What does the United States do about China's clear desire and increasing capacity to take on the United States' role as the primary strategic actor in Asia?

INSKEEP: You mean, for example, the United States is concerned because China is asserting more and more power in the South China Sea. The U.S. is doing its things with the Navy. It's doing flyovers and so forth and sending ships, but what is the big strategy there? You're not sure.

DALY: We're doing all of these things which cause China to pay an ever higher reputational price in the area. China doesn't look very good, and yet China sees itself prevailing in that it is in fact building new military facilities unopposed.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, you - though, you say the larger strategy and you're talking about through the - probably the century past our lives.

DALY: Right.

MONTAGNE: I mean, is there a larger strategy in that sense China is going to be the next economic superpower?

DALY: Well, it's already the primary trading nation in the world and the number one trade partner of all of the nations in, really, the Western Pacific. But it's also becoming more assertive in the area of the security architecture which America has been the primary architect of. China can only achieve its strategic goals by a process of displacing the United States. What does displacement look like? This is the key question. Yes, it's century long, but it could also flare up next week.

MONTAGNE: Well, this also brings us around to some degree to something that's been much talked about in this campaign, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. Both candidates are against it at this point. It involves countries around China, South Asia, as well as Asia - does not involve China. That trade deal is stuck in Congress, and here's what Obama had to say about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: The United States has never had a smooth, uncontroversial path to ratifying trade deals, but they eventually get done. And it's my intention to get this one done because on the merits, it is smart for America to do it.

MONTAGNE: Robert Daly.

DALY: Well, and we - I would hope that the TPP does eventually get done. But the question is how long is eventually and what happens in the interim? President Obama domestically has pitched the TPP as an essential tool that the United States has vis-a-vis China. He says China wants to set the trade rules of the 21st century. We can't accept that. We have to set the rules.

INSKEEP: We'll gather all of China's neighbors to fight.

DALY: Sure. But by repeating that, you up the stakes and so if we fail or if eventually it becomes, you know, three or four years, this sends a message to the other nations in the region that maybe they should bandwagon with China.

HORSLEY: And absolutely they have raised the stakes just on the eve of this summit when the deputy national security adviser said TPP has become a litmus test for other Asian countries about U.S. staying power in the region. Now, he might be saying that in hopes of persuading a reluctant Congress to ratify it, but it's also being watched around the world. And so the administration has absolutely put a lot of chips in the center of the table as it tries to get this deal done.

INSKEEP: Robert Daly, I want to give you the last word here. What if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not ratified? What difference does it make in East Asia?

DALY: Then probably the trade deal that is pushed - being pushed by China which has lower trade standards will become the primary mechanism by which nations in the area trade with each other.

INSKEEP: Meaning China could really set the rules as the administration has warned.

DALY: China could set rules that have much lower standards for environmental protections, labor protections, human rights and transparency.

INSKEEP: And that's a serious risk. Other countries are ready to do that?

DALY: If TPP looks like it's dead in the water or if eventuality is too eventual, yes.

INSKEEP: Is it dead, Scott - Scott Horsley?

HORSLEY: There's a narrow window, narrow window to get it done during the lame-duck session.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Not dead, but on life support.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's NPR's Scott Horsley, our White House correspondent who's covered the Obama administration throughout. Scott, thanks very much for coming by this morning.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Robert Daly, thanks for coming by early and staying with us throughout the morning. He's with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, has studied China and worked on China issues for many years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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