The scoop on U.S.-China relations

Foreign Affairs

Demetri Sevastopulo, veteran Asia reporter who covers the U.S.-China relationship for the Financial Times, talks about his breaking stories and the Biden administration's long-awaited China policy.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Demetri Sevastopulo.

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We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo. Coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Today on Sinica, I am delighted to welcome a journalist whose work many of my peers and doubtless many listeners admire as much as I do. Demetri Sevastopulo of The Financial Times.

Demetri is, to the best of my knowledge, the only reporter working for a major outlet whose beat is specifically the U.S.-China relationship. On that beat, just in recent months, he’s managed quite a number of scoops and breaking stories. We’ll talk to him about some of those, as well as a longer piece he recently published that takes a critical look at the Biden administration’s China policy. Demetri joins us from Washington DC. Demetri Sevastopulo. Welcome to Sinica.

Demetri: Thanks, Kaiser. It’s great to be with you.

Kaiser: It’s long overdue. Long overdue. I think I am first obliged to ask you how you landed this plum job. Was this a beat that the FT editors had all along and I just didn’t know about it? Or was it created, and you were asked then to fill it? Or was it something else? What does it say about the importance of U.S.-China relations that it has become, at least at the FT, a beat unto itself?

Demetri: Well, ironically, I’ve been at the FT for almost 20 years.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: When I first started talking to them, they wanted me to come into Washington and be the Washington-based Asia correspondent. But back then, they didn’t have either the money or the bandwidth. Or frankly, maybe the interest wasn’t quite there. So I went off and did other things. Over the past … Well, five of the last six years or five-and-a-half years, I covered Donald Trump. I was Bureau Chief during the Trump years during his presidency.

I had done two elections. Normally, after that, with the FT, you move somewhere else. But for personal reasons, I needed to stay in Washington. I pitched the FT on this new job and said, “Why don’t we create a U.S.-China correspondent position that looks at China across the whole of U.S. government? Looks at China and the Indo-Pacific region from the U.S. perspective and the perspective of the other U.S. allies and partners and other countries and do it in a holistic way.”

In some ways, the way China looks at the relationship, which is not to compartmentalize everything, but step back and look at the whole U.S.-China relationship. I think it was just good timing, frankly. I had an Asia background. I’ve lived in both China and Japan. And so, everything came together and the FT said, “Let’s give it a shot.” And so, I’ve been doing that since January 20th, last year. When Marine One took off and Trump went on his merry way.

Kaiser: An auspicious moment to begin. Although, as it turns out, the U.S.-China relationship under the Biden administration maybe isn’t all that different. We’ll talk about that. I want to focus on that big piece. On the Biden administration’s China policy.

But first, let’s talk a bit about how you manage to have so many well-positioned folks just giving you scoops and leaking you (censored) all the time. No need to divulge trade secrets here, but come on, man. What’s the secret? What are you doing, man?

Demetri: I think it’s just luck of the Irish. They say the Irish have the gift of the gab, but sometimes we’re good listeners too. I don’t know. There’s definitely a big element of luck in it.

I think another part is frankly that because the FT has invested in this position, it sends a signal to people all across the administration … Whether they’re in the Pentagon, State Department, the White House, the intelligence agencies, or USTR. The FT is taking the U.S.-China story incredibly seriously.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: We don’t do some of the parlor game pieces that other outlets might do. We’re treating the issue very seriously. Our readers want to know what the U.S. is doing with China and the rest of the world. Particularly, in the Indo-Pacific. I think people are … They say that if you invest in something, you get your investment back with interest. I think on the China beat, that’s what’s happening. People are taking us seriously.

I’m lucky that I’ve worked in Washington for about roughly 13 of the last 20 years. I knew a lot of people when they were younger and maybe not as important. And then, when they rise up in the bureaucracy here, as long as people trust you, they still talk to you. There’s an element of that as well. But I am very conscious of … There’s always an element of luck in this. I’m probably jinxing myself just by saying that.

Kaiser: I’m sure you’re not. Don’t worry about it. One of those interesting leaks you broke. This was on the Sunday just before National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan headed off to meet with Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪 in Switzerland. That was in mid-March, I believe. You broke the story that the American IC, the American Intelligence Community, claimed to have intel that said Putin had actually made a request of Xi, of Beijing, for military aid related to there.

Then, it was only … What, a three-week-old war in Ukraine? Given the timing of that leak, just before Jake took off for Switzerland. He was doing the Sunday talk shows as it actually broke, I think. What are you able to tell our listeners about the circumstances around it that maybe were either too hot or just too speculative to make it into print?

Do you have any theories of your own about the motive behind the leak and the timing of the leak? What Putin might have been trying to do maybe? Or the difficulties that it created for Beijing? Or anything else you might tell us?

Demetri: Sure. Well, one of the interesting back stories is … I think the administration was planning to drop, if that’s the right phrase, that information with another American outlet. We found out about it through different channels and maybe interrupted their plans or what they were trying to do. My sense is the reason they wanted this information out … Again, they were trying to go through a different channel. It was similar to the reason why they put out a lot of the intelligence about the Russian buildup around Ukraine just before the invasion.

There seems to have been a shift in the American Intelligence Community’s way of doing business, which has been driven by Avril Haines, who’s the Director for National Intelligence. Which essentially concludes that, in the past, America has been very reluctant … With some notable exceptions like Iraq, but very reluctant to put out intelligence about things they’re seeing because they’re worried about either damaging the relationships with their sources or their spies, or revealing their sources and methods. But there’s been a shift, and I think it started with Ukraine. There’s been some similar examples with North Korea.

But in this case, I think the administration wanted to put this information out there. Or was happy that we were chasing it and others were chasing it, and that it got out there. That it would put public pressure on China not to respond positively to what Vladimir Putin was asking Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 to supply. And that China might have second thoughts about doing something if this was out in the public, because it would increase scrutiny. If they did do something, people would notice it, and eventually they’d have to answer more questions.

I think there’s an overall shift in strategy and what they did basically played into that. This idea that you put out intelligence publicly to try and warn other countries, “We know what you’re doing. And if you do it, you’re not going to have plausible deniability afterwards.”

Kaiser: This seems to show learning on the part of the IC. They seem to be adapting to a world of more transparent and more ample public intel, and seem to be using the news media to accomplish some of their own goals. That’s smart. That seems to signal an evolution out of the strict Cold War mentality, even though our modern IC was really born out of the Cold War.

Maybe it’s just me, but my experience interacting with former intelligence officers who worked on China before Beijing, who was supposed to be our big competitor, are actually pretty uniformly critical of the direction of policy today. That’s always given me a little bit of comfort, because they presumably have seen the worst of what China is doing.

What about now? Do you feel like under Bill Burns and under Avril Haines, the Intelligence Community more broadly, are they changing their tone on China more broadly? Do you get a sense that they’re getting anything about China right or specifically wrong? I’m curious what you think the modern IC is doing to really shape the relationship that we have with China.

Demetri: It’s an interesting question. I think if you look at the leadership, Bill Burns is widely respected from both sides of the political aisle. He clearly is very well respected inside the White House and the Oval Office, and has the ear of the president, and is seen as a very solid guy with incredible experience who has a very even keel. Avril Haines is also very interesting. She’s really risen in the system quite rapidly and in meteoric ways. Has a very interesting background. She ran a bookshop in Baltimore at one point when she was younger. She’s not your typical DNI. They seem to have a very good relationship.

But I think on China … You alluded to this earlier. I think really the stance of the Intelligence Community, in terms of what they put out publicly, what they say in testimony on Capitol Hill, and what we hear privately when we talk to some people in that world, is that the skepticism about China is only growing. It’s not diminishing. They may use slightly less crude or more polished language than Donald Trump did. But actually, the general direction is the same, which is that they view China as a growing threat. They’re worried about China increasingly in Taiwan. They’re worried about the Chinese relationship with Russia. Not just in the context of Ukraine, but more broadly in the Indo-Pacific. They’re incredibly worried about some of the things that China is doing in the technology area, which could make it very difficult for the U.S. in the years to come.

Really, I think a good example is in quantum computing. There’s massive concern that if China becomes genuinely the world leader in quantum computing, it will have a big advantage when it comes to decrypting encrypted American communications technology that spy agencies use. If you can do that, you have a massive advantage. I think the concern is widespread. It’s delivered in a slightly, like I said, less crude manner than it was perhaps during the Trump administration.

Kaiser: But it’s not nearly as gentle as it was maybe during the Obama administration either. A lot of these people that I’m talking about were in the directorates of national intelligence or were actually China desk officers or Asia desk officers during the Bush and Obama years. I sense a real change. It is their job to worry, of course.

Speaking of technologies in which China has made significant advances. There was another major coup for you, back in October of last year, when you and your Taipei-based colleague who is another very widely admired China reporter, Kathrin Hille, broke the news that China had tested a hypersonic glide craft that allegedly circled the world before descending at some absurd velocity. What I remember most clearly about that was this claim that it surprised the U.S. intelligence folks.

How do a couple of FT reporters get something like this? Something that’s pretty … It’s highly technical. It’s secret. Presumably, it required either a really highly-placed Chinese source or maybe some satellite tracking gear that you guys have in London or something. I doubt that they have it just in the Taipei Bureau or there in DC. Just lying around, some super spy gear.

Demetri: We just take it out at the weekend, and we play around with it. Sometimes we get lucky, you know?

Kaiser: You got lucky. “I think that’s a hypersonic glide craft. What do you think, Kathrin?”

Demetri: Another one. I won’t go into the sourcing. For obvious reasons.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: But I think, again, it’s a reflection of, “We are taking this story very seriously.” Both Kathrin and I between us have probably … I don’t know. 30 years or more of reporting on China, the PLA. Kathrin also reported on the technology industry when she was in Beijing years ago. We focus a lot on these issues.

Clearly, that story was very sensitive because the underlying information was highly classified and remains highly classified. The Pentagon has still only confirmed a few details of what we had in the story and hasn’t said anything beyond what we wrote. But the fact that we got it shows you that there are some people in the world who believe that it was important to reveal to the public just how much progress China had made, for example, on hypersonic weapons.

Just an amazing statistic, which is public but it’s worth repeating, is that the U.S. has done roughly 10 or 11 hypersonic tests. I think there was another one yesterday that the Air Force claimed was successful. China, last time I checked, had done 280.

Kaiser: Wow.

Demetri: That was several months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re closer to 300 by now. There’s one view inside the national security establishment in the U.S., which is that revealing that kind of information is dangerous. Because again, you might be revealing sources and methods. You’re showing the Chinese how much you know. Et cetera, et cetera.

And then, there’s another school of thought, which is there’s a tendency in Washington to build China up to be this huge giant that’s indestructible. Or this country that all it does is copy and steal and it has no innovation.

The truth is, as you know better than I do, the truth is somewhere in between. China does steal and copy an awful lot of IP and military weapons designs, but it also has incredible innovation. You look at the FinTech sector. China was way ahead of America.

Kaiser: Sure.

Demetri: I think it’s important to have a more nuanced and accurate sense of where the two countries are. Anyway, in that context, there were clearly people who thought it was important to get this information out publicly.

Kaiser: This was from the U.S. IC, then? This came from the American side, then?

Demetri: No. I’m not saying where it came from. I’m just saying that there are people in that world who basically think it’s better to have a little bit more transparency.

Kaiser: Right. Right.

Demetri: In terms of that … To show what China’s doing. There are lots of countries who have a stake in this: Japan, Taiwan, Australia, all of the allies. Everyone’s looking at this. As someone pointed out to me, kind of in a joking way, but actually it wasn’t a joke. Elon Musk and his people would’ve seen this hypersonic weapon going around the world. It’s very difficult to hide something like that. Certain parts of the launch may not have been detected. Or it’s possible, because of the types of radars and sensors that the U.S. has in space, which are geared for a certain threat … I don’t know this, but it’s possible that, for example, something might disappear off a screen for a few minutes.

But it’s impossible to hide the whole thing. There would’ve been an awful lot of people who knew that China had done this or had seen it and were trying to work out what it was. What was really incredible … When we wrote the first story, I think we had a quote where someone said that China had essentially defied the laws of physics, which of course wasn’t true.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: Because if they defined the laws of physics, we would’ve had a much bigger story. Newton was wrong, or someone else was wrong. But it turned out what the Pentagon was most surprised by was not that the hypersonic glide vehicle had gone around the world. Although, that was their first and it was very impressive. It was that as the hypersonic glide vehicle, which … For people who aren’t steeped in these things, it’s basically like a space shuttle. It’s flying it more than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5, which is what hypersonic means. And it’s maneuverable. You can control it. So think of a space shuttle, but just a slightly different configuration.

Kaiser: It’s really hauling ass.

Demetri: That hypersonic glide vehicle, as it was flying over the South China Sea, coming back in towards China after flying around the earth, fires a projectile or a missile of some kind from the hypersonic weapon. That is the unbelievable technology that the Pentagon, at least several months ago, and DARPA, the advanced research arm of the Pentagon, did not understand how China had done that. Because the U.S. doesn’t know how to do that. No one had done it before.

That was really the highly advanced technological development that China showed. And that is really what shocked people. I think, again, the reason why some people were willing to take a risk and point us in the direction of this story was they thought it was important to show how much progress China had made.

One of the interesting things, and this is a good lesson for reporters, including me, or new reporters who are rookies on beats. When I first got the tip about what had happened, you go back and you read all the public congressional testimony or speeches that have been given by senior Pentagon military leaders or civilian leaders in the area that you’re looking at.

In my case, it was the Head of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Air Force, the Head of Strategic Command, the Head of Northern Command. If you looked at all of their statements, there were actually little parts of this puzzle that had been put out publicly. One person had said that China had just tested an advanced hypersonic glide vehicle. Another person said that China might have the ability to send something around the earth and attack the earth from space. Someone else said something.

If you look at all those pieces, actually a lot of this was out there already. These senior military leaders were clearly trying to push the envelope a little bit, but they had to do it within the bounds of what had been declassified and what they could say publicly without getting into trouble. I think there were clearly a lot of people, certainly in the U.S. and potentially beyond the U.S., who had a vested interest in getting this information out there. Maybe we just got lucky, but I’m not going to complain about that.

Kaiser: The strategic leg up that it would confer on China … That’s obvious enough. But is this a new frontier in the nuclear arms race? Do hypersonics genuinely pose a quantum leap of a threat?

Are we going to suddenly start hearing about the hypersonics gap just like we used to hear about the missile gap back in the 50s and 60s?

Demetri: I think we are. There are some people who downplay this. And so, for example, Secretary Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Defense Secretary, recently got very frustrated on Capitol Hill when he was asked about the gap between the U.S. and China when it came to hypersonic weapons technology. Some people will play it down and say hypersonics are not as important as others say, and we shouldn’t get too excited about what China is doing.

But I think that’s basically them not wanting to admit in public what’s going on. So just to give you an example, a couple of months ago I traveled to Australia with Admiral John Aquilino, who is the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. I spent six days traveling around Australia with him. The most interesting part of that trip was we spent two days at a place called Alice Springs, which is right smack in the middle of Australia. There’s nothing there. Although there were about 200 Cathay Pacific airplanes at the airport, because they’d been resting there since COVID started. It was like a graveyard for airplanes. But the other thing that is there is one of the most important spy satellite control centers in the world called Pine Gap. There’s even been a show about it made on … I can’t remember if it was Netflix or one of the other channels.

I sat down with Aquilino … Also, the head of U.S. Space Command, General Dickinson, and the Deputy Head of U.S. Cyber Command, General Moore, and did an interview with the three of them. One of the reasons they were there was to talk to the Australians. Pine Gap is a joint CIA-Australian spy center, basically. Satellite spy center. But to talk to them about what more the U.S. and its allies need to do in space.

And one of the things they talked about was the need to have a different constellation of sensors and different kinds of detection equipment that allow you to see hypersonic weapons as they travel around the earth. Because one of the difficulties the U.S. faces, and this is why the hypersonics question is important, is most of the U.S. missile defenses … People will argue as to whether they actually work or not. But putting that aside, the U.S. Missile Defense System is essentially geared towards a rogue nuclear missile threat coming from North Korea. Coming over the Arctic, over Alaska, into the U.S. The West Coast, East Coast, or wherever.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: What China did with this combination of the rocket and the hypersonic glide vehicle that they tested last July was you can send your missile or your hypersonic weapon around the earth in different ways. One of the things you can do is you can send it around or under the South Pole, so that instead of coming over the Arctic and down into the U.S., it would come from the South Pole up into the U.S.

That’s very important because, again, the U.S. constellation of sensors and different pieces of equipment are basically geared towards the north. This gives China a way to attack the U.S. from the south, where the U.S. doesn’t have the same kind of defenses or ability to track and detect, and then ultimately try and hit, that it has for weapons coming in from the Northern route. That’s why it’s very significant.

Also, in the same way that you can maneuver the space shuttle. The fact that hypersonic weapons can be maneuvered means they’re much harder to hit. They’re actually slower than ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles fly at much higher speeds than five times a speed of sound. But they follow a ballistic track, which if you see where the missile takes off, you know where it’s going to fly.

Kaiser: Right. A parabola.

Demetri: Hypersonic weapons are different. And so, that is really why this is so serious. Even in the last six months, I’ve had several people who read our story, who weren’t involved in the original story at all, come to me and say it was really good that this got out public. Because it’s a real wake up call for the U.S., and hopefully, it will shock Congress and the Pentagon into stepping up their game and trying to catch up with China.

Kaiser: You said there’s a streaming show about Pine Gap. There’s a streaming show also about the U.S. confronting China in space. It’s great. It stars Steve Carell and John Malkovich. It’s called Space Force. I highly recommend it.

Demetri: I will check it out.

Kaiser: I think we maybe take it a little bit more seriously than that show does. But as my friend Damien was saying, it’s just really funny to hear John Malkovich saying, “The Politburo Standing Committee.” It’s just very funny. Anyway, let’s move on. It’s fascinating.

We could devote a lot of time to talking about military hardware and stuff, but let’s shift and talk a little bit about that recent long piece you did for the FT from April. Before we get into the specifics of IPEF, the Biden team’s policy on China, maybe we need a mise-en-scène and maybe a dramatis personae of people who aren’t beltway insider types like you are.

Since this is your beat, you’re perfect to do this. Give us the lay of the land at DC and explain where different individuals or agencies or committees within the administration are and who’s driving different aspects of U.S.-China policy right now.

Maybe give us a sense of how, say, Kurt Campbell at NSC relates with Jake who’s notionally above him. Or how they relate to Tony Blinken and Daniel Kritenbrink at State. How has this changed really from Obama through Trump to the Biden administration? Maybe we can get into Gina Raimondo and Katherine Tai.

Demetri: Sure.

Kaiser: Commerce and USTR too.

Demetri: That’s a complicated question. Where should I start? Why don’t we start with the White House? So I think, in general, on China policy, it’s a very National Security Council-driven administration. Jake Sullivan is instrumental. Laura Rosenberger, who’s the senior director for China, working very closely with Jake. Very important. Kurt Campbell, obviously, instrumental to China policy. But I think, more broadly, his role is almost more of the external face of the administration. Someone who is plugging in and out of the allies and trying to create some of these groupings and mechanisms with U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. Or AUKUS, the deal that the U.K. and the U.S. and Australia signed last year to help provide Australia with nuclear powered submarines. Kurt Campbell is driving a lot of that.

I think it’s been interesting. The State Department is playing its traditional and diplomatic role, but there hasn’t been an awful lot of diplomacy between the U.S. and China. I think, partly, by design. This administration came into office 15, 16 months ago, and if you remember, they started out by saying, “We don’t want to have talks for the sake of having talks.”

They eventually had the summit in Alaska where Tony Blinken, Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan met their Chinese counterparts. And it publicly was quite an ugly spat that was on display for the media before they went behind closed doors. And then, we had a story at the end of it where Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy advisor, said to Tony Blinken, “We look forward to welcoming you in China for the next round.” And Tony Blinken said, “Thank you.” And then, the Chinese delegation kind of looked at each other. Yang Jiechi speaks fantastic English, but they weren’t quite clear what Blinken had meant, so they had a little powwow.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: They came back and they said, “What does, “Thank you,” mean? Does that mean you’re coming to Beijing?” Tony Blinken said, “Thank you means thank you.” And they left it at that.

And then, later in the summer, when Wendy Sherman, the Deputy Secretary of State wanted to go to China, she put in a request to meet Chinese officials and ended up going to Tianjin. The U.S. side was frustrated that China didn’t seem to be playing ball. China was giving the U.S. a little bit of a taste of its own medicine. The diplomatic side of things has been rocky. Just by virtue of the way it’s unfolded. Secondly, again, I think the White House doesn’t want to do engagement for the sake of engagement.

There was a famous comment that Kurt Campbell made. I forget exactly when, but four, five, six months ago, where he said that Wáng Yì 王毅 the Foreign Minister and Yang Jiechi the top foreign policy official in China, weren’t within a hundred miles of Xi Jinping’s inner circle. Therefore, talking to them was almost pointless. That didn’t go down very well in Beijing.

That’s one side of things. I think, in the Pentagon, you have Ely Ratner who is close to Kurt Campbell. Very hawkish on China, widely respected, I would say. But he’s working for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is probably one of the least public U.S. Defense Secretaries in recent times. He’s not really out there, even on the war in Ukraine, for example. He’s not really out there that much talking about China. The Pentagon publicly, I would say …. It’s not silent, but it’s not playing the role that it has played in previous administrations that I’ve witnessed.

Then, you have I’d say the one area where the administration is most divided. I think it’s in the administration overall on China … Obviously, there are some divisions, but I would say they’ve been relatively unified on many things for the past 15, 16 months. The one area where there seems to be huge division and no consensus as to how to move forward is on trade economics. What you do with the tariffs that the U.S. put on China as part of the trade war. Whether you keep them on, take them off. How all of that plays into domestic politics. Whether the U.S. government should be helping to promote American companies’ access to the Chinese market. Or whether they should be making sure that American companies are not supplying Chinese companies with the technology that might be used to help the People’s Liberation Army and where you strike that balance. I think, on all of these questions, the administration is very divided.

There’s no consensus on whether the tariffs should be lifted. Some people say, “You should lift them. It’ll help tackle inflation here.” Other people say, “No, don’t do that. Don’t give China anything unless they give us something.” That’s very significant. On the trade and technology side of things … Again, there’s a big debate where American companies are saying to the administration, “Don’t take too tough a line and hurt us, because you’re hurting America if you do that.”

Within the national security establishment, I think there’s a feeling that American companies … They’re not sufficiently taking into account the national security component of what they do or what they sell. There’s a tension between those two areas as well.

And then, that leads into what you were saying a few minutes ago, you know, that President Biden is going to South Korea and Japan this month. One of the things he wants to do is unveil what they’re calling the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is essentially the administration’s attempt to answer the criticism which has come from most countries in the Indo-Pacific, including very close allies like Japan and Australia. Which is that you can put all of the guns and ships and other military assets in the region in the Indo-Pacific that you want, but if you don’t match that with a strong economic policy and increase economic relations between countries in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and the U.S., you’re going to lose out to China. Because China is investing hugely in its trade relationships with all of those countries. Its trade relationship with some of the countries in ASEAN now dwarfs the U.S. trade relationships.

Kaiser: That’s right. ASEAN, of course … Biden just hosted quite a number of heads of state from ASEAN just at the end of last week. I’ll talk about that. A couple of things that I want to just bring up though in your fantastic lay of the land or your overview of that. One is this question of diplomacy. Not too long ago, I had Susan Thornton on the show again. She made an impassioned case for the revival of real diplomacy.

Not surprisingly, among her complaints was just exactly what you had described about how we’re doing things. Maybe she is a little more in favor of if it’s not engagement for engagement’s sake, it’s certainly engagement along a larger surface area of the American-Chinese relationship. She thinks that it simply lacks any breadth right now and certainly depth.

There has to be more than just one point of interface at the very top, which is what we have. These big occasional summits at or near the top between Xi and Biden or Yang and Sullivan or Blinken and Wang Yi. Is there anyone in the administration right now who you think recognizes that there’s a need to bring back a multiple points of contact diplomatic kind of diplomatic relationship with China?

Demetri: I think in the very senior positions across the U.S. administration, there are not many voices calling for that. Again, within the state department, diplomacy is their bread and butter. There are definitely diplomats who would like to be doing more diplomacy. That’s their career. I think they feel like they’re slightly out in the cold at the moment.

I suspect … Just anecdotally, I’ve heard people talk about different agencies like Health and Human Services, other branches of the U.S. government, where there’s lots of stuff happening with China which doesn’t make daily headlines, but is probably quite important in terms of global health or lots of issues like that.

There is engagement, but the consensus view among the top leadership in the Biden administration is that the Chinese government, more than any point probably since Mao Zedong … Power is concentrated, or really strongly concentrated, in the hands of one man: Xi Jinping. Therefore, the lower level engagements that you would have with Chinese diplomats or bureaucrats in previous years are actually less useful. Because unless you can change Xi Jinping’s behavior or his view of how China should be acting in the world or different kinds of economic policy or foreign policy … You can have all the conversations you want with lower levels and it won’t make any difference. There’s a frustration in there.

Kaiser: I personally think that’s completely getting it wrong. Because by only having those top level contacts, you reinforce Xi’s monopoly on the entire breadth of the relationship. You can actually dilute it by having more points of contact. Taking care of more of the day to day. It takes things out of his purview.

Anyway, before we plunge into this conversation about the IPEF. Last week, Biden made this little speech on inflation. He hinted he might be dropping some of the tariffs. What did you make of that? Did you get a sense that we should be waiting for the other shoe to fall on that? Maybe this signals some movement in the deadlock between Commerce and USTR?

Demetri: I don’t know. I haven’t written a story on that yet, because I’m not clear what the answer is. Right now, I don’t know what I would say. Clearly, there’s a deadlock, and I think it’s going to take Biden to weigh in one way or the other to come to some kind of a decision. The difficulty with interpreting Joe Biden’s quips on various things is you’re not always sure. There is, in a different way, a bit of a Trump quality to this. You’re not always sure if it’s really serious or it’s what his administration is really thinking. Or is it something that he discussed with his advisors that he’s hinting to the public? Or did he just throw it out there, and we’ll move on?

He’s made several comments about defending Taiwan, which his senior officials have had to roll back as quickly as they can. It’s not clear to me, with tariffs, whether that was actually a strategic comment and signaling something that’s going to happen or not. There are very strong views on both sides of this equation within the administration, so until Biden actually decides really which way he wants to go, I don’t think we’re going to see any movement.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you accept the argument that reducing the tariffs will lower inflation. Other people will say, “Well, the Democratic majority in the House is in serious jeopardy.” Most people think that Democrats will lose the House. They may lose their majority in the Senate. And so, Biden is also weighing up, on the one hand, inflation. On the other hand, if it looks like he’s done something that China hawks will say was weak on China, well, then he’s going to be hammered over the head with that for the next whatever it is – six, seven months to the midterm.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: Clearly, they’re balancing the economics, the national security, and the politics. The problem is they never talk about the politics of China, the domestic politics angle of China policy publicly. Even privately, they’re very reluctant to do it. So it’s quite hard to parse where they’re going on this.

Kaiser: But we can infer that is something that’s a gigantic consideration for them. And it’s fairly obvious that it is. Jeff Bader, who headed China for the Obama NSC for a few years, wrote a piece that was very critical of what he called, “Biden’s Trump lite approach.” He came onto the show to talk about that.

He was lamenting this fear that Biden seems to have of being labeled soft on China, being attacked on his right flank. How big of a factor do you think that is? It seems to weigh really large in their thinking. Was Bader right when he said that the GOP’s going to hit you no matter what you do on China? Look, it’s almost like that is already baked in. There’s already this assumption that he is soft on China. There’s all this stuff still in the air about Hunter. And so, I wonder whether they should just do what they ought to do and move on? Inflation is a much bigger worry. It’s got to be.

Demetri: It’s interesting that some of the things Biden has done on China, Republicans will quietly or privately praise. But obviously, as you get closer to the midterms … Both parties are guilty of this. You go into politics mode and your goal is to beat the rival. Therefore, you throw out everything that you can.

But I think fundamentally around the country, if you strip out the politics … I covered the 2016 Presidential Election and was all over America talking to just average American voters. I remember talking to one academic in Eastern Ohio, where I’d spent a few days. This is about the NAFTA trade agreement, the North America Free Trade Agreement. He said, “People in Washington don’t realize or many of them don’t realize that in Eastern Ohio, NAFTA is more unpopular than Osama bin Laden.” He was only half joking. I’ve used that line a few times, borrowed it from this academic.

I think, with China, it’s a combination of … It’s very easy to blame China for the hollowing out of American industry. Sometimes it is China’s fault. Other times, it’s to do automation and lots of other things. It’s much more complicated. But I think that is a potent weapon that the Republicans could use if Biden did something on trade that they felt they could use to hurt him in November. I do think that if you were on the political side of the house in the White House, if you were Ron Klain, the Chief of Staff, who clearly has to worry about this more than Kurt Campbell or the Asia officials, this is a very serious concern.

And I think that explains why it’s in the trade and economic area where the administration has … If you were being charitable, you would say deliberative. If you’re being less charitable, you would say that they’ve been incredibly slow and paralyzed.

Kaiser: All right. Well, let’s move on now and talk a little bit about the IPEF. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Not long ago, I had Evan Feigenbaum on this show talking about … Well, talking about really the same issue. Although this was long before the IPEF was even just an urge. He was talking about how our emphasis on the security dimension of Asia policy, specifically, our focus on the China piece of Asia security, it’s hampering us.

He had a really great phrase. He said that by providing security and not much else … Well, China has, as you were saying, just by dint of the sure size of its economy by its geographic heft. Because it has, as you say, just been deliberately forging all these deep commercial relations, building infrastructure and whatnot. We Americans risk becoming the Hessians of Asia, these mercenaries just providing security and nothing else. I’m sure he would’ve said the same thing if you’d interviewed him for your piece from April. But you got someone else from Carnegie, Paul Haenle, saying basically the same thing in different words.

This seems to be a broadly shared perspective and it was the thrust of your piece. Tell us, what do we know right now about this forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework? Are we expecting Biden to take the wraps off it when he goes to East Asia very soon? As he hinted more at it maybe in the ASEAN meetings in the White House last week.

Demetri: The White House … Their intent is to unveil it when Biden is in Tokyo over the weekend or Monday.

Kaiser: Oh, so soon. Wow.

Demetri: In terms of countries they’ve got to sign up … Nothing is “official” official. They’re still haggling with four or five days to go. Anything could happen. But essentially, the core U.S. allies in Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, which is not a defense ally, but is very close to the U.S., have basically said that they will join. New Zealand as well.

There are strong signs that India will also join, which would be a big deal, because India was not part of the Transpacific Partnership. Also, India negotiated for years for the RCEP, which is the other big trade deal in Asia, but then pulled away at the very last minute. India getting involved would be a significant moment. The difficulty is with most of the ASEAN countries.

What we’re hearing is the key U.S. allies think that the I.P.E.F. or IPEF is better than nothing, but not great. Privately, they’re quite dismissive. Publicly, when you ask people to say something, even on background or on the records, the quotes are a little bit more friendly towards the administration. But one of the things that one person in the region said to me was, “IPEF is like a fried egg without the yolk. It lacks all the nutrition,” which I thought was a good way to describe it.

They don’t want to criticize the U.S. and Biden publicly, because they feel this is the only thing on the table at the moment. They want to try and make it a success, so that then hopefully at some point down the road, the U.S. will join the successor to the TPP, which is called the CPTPP.

Kaiser: Right. Right. Because we’ll have lots of appetite for that, clearly.

Demetri: Exactly. But they’re hoping upon hope. But the ASEAN countries are privately saying, “Listen, hold on a second. This is something that the U.S. has basically cooked up and is presenting to us and saying, “We’d like you to join this,” but there’s not a huge amount in it for us.” For example, there is pretty much nothing in the IPEF which would grant more access to the U.S. market, which is what all these countries want.

Kaiser: Exactly.

Demetri: They want, in a sense, a traditional trade agreement. On the U.S. side, they’re hampered because of the politics. They’re not going to do that. And so, publicly, they’re explaining IPEF and they’re saying it’s a 21st century trade deal. It’s going to look at digital issues. It’s going to look at other things that traditional trade deals didn’t look at.

And I think there’s an element of truth to that. It’s important that trade deals keep up with the times, but it’s also a convenient way to ignore the reality, which is most of these countries in Asia don’t think that IPEF is going to make a huge difference. It’s certainly difficult to see how it will help the U.S. compete against China with these countries. That’s why there’s a lot of frustration.

Essentially, if you sign up, as far as we can tell, it’s going to be non-binding. It’s not even a binding agreement. You’re going to have negotiations with multiple countries on multiple tracks. There’s basically four pillars to this agreement. Looking at different things from fair trade to supply chain issues to green economy. It’s going to be very convoluted.

I think the administration is about to appoint one person to be the lead negotiator in the U.S. Because a lot of other countries were complaining and saying Commerce has part of it, U.S. Trade Representative has part of it, the NSC is in charge of it. There were too many cooks in the kitchen from the perspective of other countries.

But I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how many countries Biden can get to sign up in the next four days. And whether the countries will genuinely sign up, like we’re going to be proper involved in proper negotiations in the different pillars. Or whether some countries will do a soft sign up, which is to say, “We’ll sign up to hold consultations on these different areas, and at some point that might lead to real negotiations.”

I think that’s one of the questions. How many people has Biden managed? Did he twist their arms at the ASEAN summit in Washington a few days ago and say, “Hey. Please work with me with this? It’s not ideal, but if we want to tackle China, it’s crucial that you’re there with us.”

Kaiser: It sounds like there’s no downside for signing on, but I wonder what they’re thinking. First of all, that is an awful lot of cooks to be serving up a bland egg white scramble.

Look, these same countries are looking at what the Biden administration is staring down, which is the midterms in November and then a 2024 race. They’ve got to be wondering whether any of this can even be counted on in the first place. They’re contemplating American politics too.

Demetri: Totally. That’s one of the things you hear all the time is TPP was a much more structured binding agreement. It hadn’t been ratified by the Senate, but Trump pulled out of it. If my memory serves me correct, I think it was day one or day two.

Kaiser: Day one.

Demetri: In the first week. The question is in 2024, how do you know that whoever the next president is even if it’s a different Democrat is actually going to stand by this? Remember. Back in 2015, when the TPP was concluded, Hillary Clinton had been a huge fan. Kurt Campbell was definitely a big fan. He was working with Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, a month after the deal was negotiated and concluded, basically came out and said, “I have reservations about TPP. I can’t support it.” It’s not just Trump who moved away from these big ticket trade deals. The zeitgeist in the country is against them. Even though, when you look at polling, it shows that a majority of Americans believe that free trade is a good thing.

But when it boils down to key swing districts or states, the politics then shifts very dramatically in a way that makes them very difficult. I think trade and economics is going to be the hardest component of U.S. policy on Asia. To go back to the quote from Paul Haenle, which was basically, “The U.S. has to be careful that its policy in Asia is not just all guns and no butter.”

Kaiser: That’s right. That’s right. I wonder. Even if they were able to offer meaningful market access, is it your sense that if he had commitments to significantly lower barriers for countries that signed on that anyone would be motivated to turn away from China and towards the U.S.?

None of these countries like this binary choice, right? None of the countries of Asia with very few exceptions. The new South Korean administration, which is very conservative, probably will. And of course Japan. But outside of that, what countries could be enticed by the mere dangling of market access?

By the way, which in IPEF’s case would be in an executive order that could easily be reversed in a new administration. Who’s going to be enticed to go all in with the U.S. on that?

Demetri: I don’t think any of the countries who are caught in the middle are all of a sudden going to wake up and say, “Hey, I’m with America now. I can sell my palm oil into whatever. Therefore, I’m all in with you.”

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s about making sure that the balance doesn’t tilt so significantly towards China, that the U.S. over time has no leverage or much less leverage with some of these countries. And so, it’s a question of maintaining a certain amount of leverage as opposed to feeling that you’re going to have domination over the country.

Because clearly, to the extent that ever existed, that’s gone now. U.S. relative power to China or the gap that the U.S. had is shrinking. And it’s going to continue to shrink relatively over time. It’s about the U.S. maintaining a stake in the Pacific and showing countries there that it is involved. Again, that it’s not just aircraft carriers sailing around the South China Sea or military exercises with the Japanese and the Australians. That there’s a wider engagement.

But the difficulty is … And if you think back a few days ago, to when Biden held the ASEAN summit, they unveiled basically 150 million dollars of various initiatives to do things with Southeast Asia. When I first wrote the story, several others had the same story. There were people saying, “Are you sure it’s ‘million’? Is it not ‘billion’?” People were joking.

One person said, “Hey. Elon Musk spends more than that before breakfast every day. Spread 150 million across 10 countries in ASEAN and that’s basically chicken feed.” Now, I know that the White House was very unhappy with lots of the things that were being said online. I can understand that, but the reality is that China is investing a huge amount of money.

The U.S. will often come back and say that U.S. foreign direct investment in many countries in Asia and in ASEAN is still ahead of China. That may be true, but China is catching up incredibly quickly. Everybody who’s watched China, dealt with China, knows that the volume of what China does is very impressive, but the speed is even more impressive. I think the U.S. can’t just look at what’s happening right now. They have to look 10 years down the road and say, “Where is China going to be in Southeast Asia in 10 years? Is the U.S. going to be able to compete?”

Recently, there was a story which got a lot of attention in China-watching circles. But I think in the broader media, in Washington certainly, it didn’t. Which is the Solomon Islands, a pacific island nation northeast of Australia, signed a security deal with China. Before you know it, you’ve got the two top spy chiefs from Australia flying down to the Solomons. Kurt Campbell and Dan Kritenbrink, the top State Department Asia official, went to the Solomons with the Deputy Commander from Indo-Pacific command.

All of a sudden, you have a full court press from the U.S. saying, “Hey, we want to work with you too.” But the problem is a lot of countries in the region feel that the U.S., when it comes to the non-military stuff, is always behind the curve. And it takes some kind of a shock to the system for the U.S. to react and try and catch up.

But meanwhile, China’s not slowing down. This is the big question for the U.S.: Can they remain engaged in Asia in an economic way and other ways diplomatically in countries where they don’t have strong alliances? In a way that they’re going to maintain leverage over time? Or is China going to steamroll them? How do they deal with that? I think it’s an open question still.

Kaiser: Let’s shift and talk a little bit about the military stuff. About the guns and leave the butter for now. With the revival of the quad and this new AUKUS security pact. Do you think that the U.S. military and defense establishment has a real cogent framework for the modern U.S.-China relationship?

Are they looking at it still through the old Cold War mindset as China often alleges? That China is America’s new Soviet Union? I feel like the Quad and AUKUS, there’s an ad hoc quality to them. “NATO of the East,” is how China describes it. I wonder how the Ukraine war affects China’s thinking on this as well. Give us a lay of the security landscape.

And then, I will treat everyone to my limerick about AUKUS. Actually, I’ll do that right now. I wrote a limerick about AUKUS:

“Anglo-Saxons conspired to mock us!”

said Macron, as he heard about AUKUS.

So he recalled his ambo,

and tried to play Rambo,

but looked a bit more like Dukakis.

Demetri: I appreciate that. My mother grew up in Limerick in Ireland, so I’m a big fan of limericks.

Kaiser: Wow. Fantastic. All right. It scans too. It works.

Demetri: That was so good. I’ve forgotten the question.

Kaiser: We were just talking about the security range for this. Is this a new NATO for the East as China alleges? Is this a restoration of Cold War mentality thinking? Quad and AUKUS and all this stuff. Is this containment to … What’s going on here? How should we understand American security arrangements in East Asia?

Demetri: Well, so I think an interesting way to think about it is to think back roughly 10 years or so. I remember I covered the Pentagon and intelligence agencies during most of the Bush administration and the start of the Obama administration. And I remember the time you had senior military officers in the U.S., including Mike Mullen, who became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Navy Admiral.

I remember some of the senior brass saying, “Yes, we’re concerned about China. Yes, we want more transparency.” Et cetera, et cetera. But when people criticize China and say, “Why is it developing an aircraft carrier?” Or, “Why is it developing such and such?” His answer was at the time, “Listen, China is an emerging power. It’s on its way to being a superpower. It would be strange if a superpower didn’t want to have these things.” A blue-water Navy and all of these other capabilities that the U.S. has.

Now, that wasn’t the majority view, but there was definitely a view along those lines among some people. I think what shifted is two things. One, is the way China itself has changed its behavior. Some of the things it’s done domestically. For example, the repression or persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The crackdown on whatever amount of democracy there was in Hong Kong originally; it’s certainly less and less now. This week, we had the imprisonment of Cardinal Zen. Then, you have more recently economic coercion towards Australia, towards Taiwan, towards Lithuania and other countries. It’s the combination of China under Xi Jinping is becoming much more assertive and throwing its weight around in a way that the U.S., A: Is not used to. And, B: Doesn’t like because it’s antithetical to U.S. American values and freedom. Freedom of speech, et cetera, et cetera.

The other thing is that the Chinese military has just grown so rapidly. I remember when I moved to Hong Kong in 2009 to be the FT’s Asian News Editor, the Chinese Coast Guard was smaller than the American Coast Guard. The Chinese Navy was smaller than the American Navy. Today, the Chinese Navy is way bigger than the American Navy. The Coast Guard is bigger. They’re catching up in many areas in terms of weapon systems. They’ve surpassed the U.S. and others like hypersonics.

I think there’s a shock to the system in the U.S. The way I like to think of it, which is quite simplistic, but I think it’s a good lens. If you imagine the world is a big schoolyard. One corner, you have the U.S., which is this big kid. And it’s got lots of friends around it. Some of them are genuine friends – the Japanese, the U.K., Europeans, the Australians. Some of them are friends because they’ve been bullied a little bit over the years. I won’t say any names.

And then, others are just there because they want protection. They just want to hang out with a big kid who can protect them. On the other side of the schoolyard, for a time, you had the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union, although it had more nuclear weapons than the U.S. and in that sense was very powerful, it wasn’t integrated into the global economy. It wasn’t an economic powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination the way that China is. Americans weren’t buying products that were made in Moscow or St. Petersburg for the most part.

Kaiser: Now, that kid’s fallen off the jungle gym and broken his arm.

Demetri: That kid has come back for a little while, and it’s in a different corner of the playground right now. We can get back to that in a second. But on the other end of the playground, you have this other big kid that’s getting big and bigger very quickly. It doesn’t have as many natural friends as the U.S., for sure, but it’s throwing a lot of money around. The ASEAN countries are a good example.

China’s investing a lot. It’s investing a lot in Africa. “Winning friends,” is maybe the wrong word, but it’s winning partners of some sort. And it’s not willing to be pushed around by the U.S., the way that it felt like it was pushed around in the past. China is now a confident actor on the world stage. There are some places where that may not be true. But compared to 10 years ago, there’s a huge shift in Chinese confidence.

I think one of the biggest things that’s happening in America is just the broader body politic, whether it’s Congress, the administration, experts … People grew up in America. They’re used to being told that your local police force is the best in the world. Your military is the best in the world. Your democracy is the best in the world. For the first time, you’ve got this other huge kid that’s challenging a lot of these things. American democracy is under threat, look at January 6. It’s difficult for American diplomats to sell American democracy, because of some of the things that have happened. The Chinese military is getting bigger. The U.S. has got lots of … It’s still a very resilient and strong society. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is in decline, but the relative strength is not there.

And I think psychologically, in Washington in particular, Americans are struggling to get their head around the fact that China is going to be a big kid in the playground for a very long time. It’s not about to collapse. It’s going to be a major player that you can’t ignore. Unless you have two parallel universes, where half the world signs up to the U.S. and the other half signs up to China. I don’t see that happening. I think with global supply chains, it’s just not feasible.

Kaiser: Right.

Demetri: Most companies don’t want to go that far. I think that there’s a psychological issue, and until America really understands how it’s going to compete with China, I think we’re in for a long rocky road.

Kaiser: So the new kid on the playground who’s growing really fast. He’s got this growth spurt going on. He’s got a list of grievances. He’s got a list of criticisms about how the big kid has been running things.

Are there Chinese criticisms of American policy that the U.S. would actually be wise to open its ears to? To simply be more receptive to? What would you say if anything is on that list of grievances that we maybe ought to take under advisement?

Demetri: Well, there’s some areas where it’s interesting. It’s difficult to answer because you can’t separate Xi Jinping from China. If you could, maybe you’d have two different answers.

Kaiser: Sure.

Demetri: There was obviously an effort for a long time to try and bring China more into the global economic system. Not so much in terms of just trade, where clearly it’s already a huge player, but in terms of obviously the WTO and other rules-based organizations or institutions. There was a push for a while, which is still in the background, to give China a bigger voice at some of the international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

For a while, there was reasonable support for that in the U.S. Because it was viewed as, as Robert Zoellick famously said, “Making China into a responsible stakeholder.” At that time, China’s criticisms were that the post World War II order had been created by the U.S. and its friends. Obviously, the rules are more friendly to the U.S. and to U.S. values. We are this new big kid. We have slightly different values. We don’t want to have to plug into a world that was made by all of these other people. We want to have a stake. All other things being equal, I think that’s a fair criticism. You could understand why China would want to do that. You can understand why some people in the U.S. would think it’s a good idea and why others might not want to do that because of what China does at home, the lack of democracy and everything else.

The difficulty is I think that China is also shooting itself in the foot, and that at the same time that the U.S. was becoming a little bit more hawkish or that the general view on China across the board was shifting in a more hawkish direction; Xi Jinping started to become much more aggressive around the world and assertive, which meant that any voices in America to try and listen to Chinese concerns, I think either disappeared or they were muted.

It’s been very striking to me that one of the things in my job that I’ve noticed over the past … What? 16 months, I guess. If I quote people who are seen as being insufficiently hawkish … They might still be hawkish, but they’re not hawkish enough for some others. I will get texts from people telling me, “Why did I quote so and so?” And I get a little bit in the other direction too. If I quote someone who seemed to be too hawkish or too close to Trump, I’ll get less hawkish people saying, “Why did you quote these people?”

I think there’s a problem that Washington has right now. It’s quite difficult to have an open discussion about China. There’s an awful lot of self-censorship going on, which I don’t think is healthy for American democracy, and I don’t think it’s healthy for an American government that needs to craft smart policies in terms of how they deal with China.

That’s all to say that I think China probably does have some legitimate criticisms, but right now, I don’t think there’s any ear in America to listen to those, certainly in Washington. Whenever an ear pops out, Xi Jinping does something which makes that ear pop back in very quickly.

Kaiser: He’s his own worst enemy in so many ways. I really appreciate that. One last question for you. You’ve been doing this for 16 months, but you’ve been really covering the beat for much longer. From your experience as a journalist, do your impressions of the leaders you talk to, of the career bureaucrats that you talk to, the politicians, all the people who are shaping our China policy that you’ve interacted with, do they make you more optimistic or more pessimistic about the future of U.S.-China relations? Combining their competence, their character, their temperament. Do you feel this bodes well?

Demetri: I’m a big optimist by nature. Often, when you grow up in a small country like Ireland, you have to be an optimist to deal with the rest of the world. But I feel pretty pessimistic. I see very few signs in the short term that U.S.-China relations will improve. I think really there’s two hurdles.

One, is that as long as China’s continuing to, again, persecuting the Uyghurs, cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong, economic coercion, and, the elephant in the room, its stance towards Taiwan and what may or may not happen militarily there, until all of that has disappeared, I don’t see a window for improvement in relations with the U.S.

And then, on the flip side. As I said a few minutes ago, I don’t think the U.S. is psychologically ready to engage with China in a way that will create some kind of … It’s never going to be an alliance, but some working partnership where the two countries can work on serious issues that impact the planet. Right now, there’s not an awful lot of that, and in the short term, I don’t see much optimism either.

In terms of the people, there’s an awful lot of smart people on China in Washington. I have no idea how many China experts there are in the government if you tally up all the different agencies and private and public and secret and non-secret. But there’s also an awful lot of people who feel like they need to be an expert on China now and speak out on China who have zero, or close to zero, knowledge about China, about the Indo-Pacific. But it doesn’t stop them from bullshitting. Probably, always known to do that. It’s a democracy and it’s a free country and people are free to voice their opinions, but I do think sometimes the experts get drowned out by the very loud voices who don’t really have a lot of experience or knowledge in the area.

Kaiser: Demetri Sevastopulo. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me here on Sinica. Let’s move on to recommendations. But first, a quick reminder that The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you want to support the work that we do with Sinica and the other shows in the Sinica Network, the very best thing you can do is subscribe to SupChina’s excellent China Access newsletter.

If you listen to this show, you are obviously interested in China. Read our newsletter because it is just the easiest way there is to keep up. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. Demetri, you got a TV show or a book or an article or something that you want to share with our listeners?

Demetri: If you’ll indulge me, I’ve got two and one of them is not very orthodox. The first one is …

Kaiser: Fantastic. I like unorthodox.

Demetri: The first one is a book that I read recently by Michael Green. The Japan and Asia Expert at CSIS, the think tank in Washington. And it’s called Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo.

Kaiser: I should be looking at that book.

Demetri: It’s interesting. Because it shows you how Japan has shifted under Abe. Now, he’s had two successors. How it’s become much more hawkish on China, how it’s become much more public in talking about the dangers to Taiwan and what that would mean for Japan. To me, I lived in Japan for most of the 90s and got involved in Japan before I got involved in China. I’ve been involved with the country for 30 years, and I’m always going back and forth. One of the most astounding things to me, in a country where things change generally slowly, is how quickly both the politicians and, probably more importantly, the Japanese bureaucracy has shifted on China in the last few years. To the point where prime ministers and defense ministers now openly talk about how the threat to Taiwan is a threat to Japan and it’s important to push back against China. Mike’s book basically shows how Abe gently pulled people along, helped by public opinion, which was being shaped by what China was doing.

Kaiser: Again.

Demetri How he’s laid the foundations for something that he argues will outlast Abe and is already outlasting Abe. I think you’re seeing that now in the way that the Japanese government is dealing with the Biden administration. That there’s no sign that they’re going to pull back on some of these things.

And it’s interesting. You hear Japanese politicians now talking more about Taiwan, I would say, than North Korea, which certainly four or five years ago was not the case. It’s a relatively short book. It has an index for people who like to do the Washington read and see if they’re quoted.

Kaiser: Jesus.

Demetri: But if you take your time, it’s really interesting. I highly recommend that. My second recommendation is that you have everyone on talking about books. Evan Feigenbaum talked about a recipe book. I think it was a Ukrainian recipe book.

Kaiser: Yep.

Demetri: The one thing you need when you’re reading and eating is a drink. During the pandemic, I started drinking different kinds of gin. I’m going to recommend an Irish gin.

Kaiser: Oh?

Demetri: There’s been a real revival in craft gin distilleries in Ireland in the last few years. One of my favorites is called Irish Gunpowder and it’s from County Leitrim. Highly recommend that. And then, given that the other half of my family is actually Japanese, I’m also going to recommend Roku, R-O-K-U, which is made by Suntory, which makes a phenomenal range of new Japanese whiskeys. But their Roku gin is also excellent. So if you’re sitting back reading one of these books that your podcast guests have recommended, try a glass of Irish gin to go with it.

Kaiser: These are great recommendations. Thank you. I will keep my eye out for Irish Gunpowder. I’m not a big gin guy. Recently, my thing has been rye. I’ve discovered how great just neat rye tastes. I had no idea. It’s just infinitely preferable to me than bourbon, but I’ve been trying all sorts of different little ryes from little distilleries. Really enjoy it.

Demetri: You might be jealous, Kaiser. Because when I was Bureau Chief, I often asked one of my colleagues to go down to Kentucky and do a story on the tariffs.

Kaiser: That’s the place.

Demetri: They were impacting the bourbon makers, et cetera. For various reasons, this colleague never did it. One day, I said, “Executive privilege as Bureau Chief. I’m going to go down.” And I did a tour of the Wild Turkey Distillery. My dad had given me Wild Turkey when I was 13 years old and I hated it.

But I thought, “I’m a bit older now,” and did a great tour of the distillery and interviewed a couple of bikers who’d come up on Harley-Davidsons from Alabama. There were tariffs on the Harley’s as well. Had a couple of drinks and got a great story. And so, life was happy.

Kaiser: That’s great. I love it. All right. I am going to recommend a book that I just Blurbed. It’s a forthcoming nonfiction book that’s co-written by the sci-fi writer, the founder of, Cory Doctorow, who I just have known for many years. He’s just one of the most exciting people I’ve ever really had the pleasure of chatting with.

He’s just so full of good ideas. He’s so articulate about them too. He co-wrote this with this trademark lawyer from Australia named Rebecca Giblin. The book won’t be out for another couple of months, but it’s just great. It’s called Choke Point Capitalism. And it’s about how these monopolies and monopsonies are basically just ruining culture in America and much of the rest of the world today.

Obviously, the culprits are Amazon and then Ticketmaster and Spotify. The big three record labels. Audible. I got to confess, I use Audible. Really, I’m terribly addicted. I have like that highest level of whatever on there. All the streaming services. The rest of it. Anyway, let me just read you the blurb that I wrote. Because it’s pretty short and I think this gets it right. I just turned it into Cory yesterday.

I said, “If you’re halfway through this book and aren’t boiling mad over the way contemporary capitalism has deformed and crippled culture, get your head checked. Choke Point Capitalism is a “Why we fight,” for a long overdue uprising. Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow lay out their case in plain and powerful prose, offering a grand tour of the blighted cultural landscape and how our arts and artists have been chickenized, choked, and cheated. It’s more than just a call to arms. It also provides a plan of battle with inspired strategy and actual tactics. Ways that we can all channel that anger and make real change.”

Anyway, it’s a great book. I was boiling mad. I was like, “Oh my God, I got to change the whole the way I live now.” But anyway, great book. I look forward to seeing it published. Hopefully, I won’t have to even check the index, like I do the Washington read. I’ll just turn it over and see my name there.

Demetri, thank you once again. And I’ll definitely be asking you to come back on again before too long. Because there’s just a ton more to discuss. Lots of summitry in the future and we’ll want your take on all that.

Demetri: I appreciate it. And I appreciate you taking a risk on having an Irishman talk about China to an American audience. Thank you.

Kaiser: Thank you. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at

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