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Biden is off to India and Vietnam. It's part of his push to counter China's influence

President Biden speaks at the White House on Sept. 6. He's scheduled to leave this week on a trip to India and Vietnam.
Jim Watson
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks at the White House on Sept. 6. He's scheduled to leave this week on a trip to India and Vietnam.

President Biden is scheduled to depart on Thursday for India and Vietnam, two strategic countries that neighbor China. Like much of the president's foreign policy, this trip is implicitly about China and its growing influence.

Biden's first stop is New Delhi, where he'll meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was warmly welcomed with a state dinner in Washington this summer.

Modi is hosting the G20 summit of the world's leading wealthy and developing countries. Biden plans to use the event to try to strengthen two institutions that provide lending and support to developing countries: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This push is widely viewed as an effort to beef up alternatives to Chinese lending programs, including the Belt and Road Initiative, which has saddled some countries in Asia and Africa with debts they cannot repay.

"Given both the scale of the need and, frankly, the scale of the PRC's coercive and unsustainable lending through the Belt and Road Initiative, we need to ensure that there are high-standard, high-leverage solutions to the challenges countries are facing," Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters, using the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

An employee of a souvenir shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, packs a shirt bearing an image of President Biden on Sept. 6, ahead of the U.S. president's visit to the city.
Nhac Nguyen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An employee of a souvenir shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, packs a shirt bearing an image of President Biden on Sept. 6, ahead of the U.S. president's visit to the city.

Vietnam and the United States are drawing closer

From New Delhi, Biden will travel to Hanoi, Vietnam, where he'll focus on deepening economic cooperation. There are expectations that Vietnam, a one-party state led by the Communist Party of Vietnam, will upgrade its relationship status with the United States.

Experts say this would be a substantial shift, given that the two countries normalized relations only in 1995. Since then, the United States has become Vietnam's largest export market. Exports have surged since then-President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on China, with many U.S. companies now turning to Vietnam instead.

While in Hanoi, Biden will meet with the general secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, about technology, innovation and efforts to "increase peace, prosperity, and stability in the region," the White House said in a statement.

Both stops on Biden's trip signal the extent to which his administration is invested in forging friendships in the region to balance China, even if those friends do not fully share the U.S. emphasis on human rights or press freedoms.

An armed security guard stands near a G20 logo in New Delhi on Sept. 6.
Tauseef Mustafa / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An armed security guard stands near a G20 logo in New Delhi on Sept. 6.

China's Xi is skipping the G20 summit

For the first time since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to skip the G20 summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin won't be there. Some experts say this could provide a bigger opening for Biden's agenda.

A key pitch that Biden is taking with him to India is World Bank and IMF reform. Both institutions were created in 1944 to help rebuild after World War II. Over the years, their missions have evolved. These days, the World Bank is involved in a diverse set of projects ranging from education to public health.

"These institutions [the IMF and the World Bank] can play a critical role, helping to mitigate risk in developing countries and help them create stronger economic systems," said DJ Nordquist, who represented the United States on the board of the World Bank from 2019 to 2021.

Historically, the U.S. has been the largest shareholder in the World Bank. But as China's economy has grown, it has become the third-largest player in the bank. At the same time, China has also created alternatives for lending money to low-income countries, especially in Africa and Asia.

"China has created, starting around 2014, a very serious — for lack of a better word — competitor to the World Bank," said Nordquist, pointing not just to the Belt and Road Initiative but also to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China has created alternatives for lending money to low-income countries. One example is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headquartered in Beijing.
Jade Gao / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
China has created alternatives for lending money to low-income countries. One example is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headquartered in Beijing.

Biden wants $2 billion from Congress for his plan

Biden has asked lawmakers for $2 billion for the World Bank and IMF — money that the White House believes would leverage billions more from G20 partners.

It's still a fraction of what's needed, according to Rachel Kyte, a former vice president of the World Bank. "But it's important because the U.S. has to take the lead here," she said.

She says there's a recognition that the world needs a bigger and better system for lending money to developing countries.

"Over the last 20 to 30 years, the West — the U.S. at the heart of it — has underinvested in the infrastructure of the rest of the world. And while we weren't doing that, China really ramped up its lending to emerging markets in developing countries," said Kyte, the former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The challenge for the Biden administration heading into India is that it's trying to walk a very fine line on this issue. It has said that its plan will offer an alternative to Chinese lending that it describes as "coercive," while also insisting that it is not specifically targeting China — a World Bank member — with this proposal.

"Growing the size, relevance, capacity of the World Bank to deliver for low- and middle-income countries is not against China," Sullivan told reporters.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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