Biden Stumbles on China
The Biden administration must engage in what was once called an ‘agonizing reappraisal’ of its foreign policy. In the present case, this means dropping the Cold War mindset and taking effective steps to engage the world constructively on the basis of mutual advantage and mutual respect.
President Joe Biden has some work to do on his China policy. Whether his administration can rebuild and stabilize United States-China relations remains to be seen. US China policy was not constructive under Obama and Trump. Out of the gate, Biden stumbled.
While optimistic observers may have hoped for a real change in US policy post Trump, it is not yet detectable. Biden has a different style than the abrasive Trump but what about the substance of his policy?
Of course, it is too early in a new administration to draw any definitive conclusions. But, so far, the Trump trade and tech war remains in place. Pro-Taiwan policy seems enhanced, human rights and Xinjiang issue rhetoric has not changed, US military deployments in the South China Sea and near Taiwan continue, and US diplomatic discourse is acerbic.
Actually, this is not surprising. US foreign policy often shows more continuity than change and change, when it comes, comes slowly. The main contours of US national strategy since World War II remain in place. Cold War geopolitical containment of the Eurasian landmass continues targeting China and Russia. Alliance structures such as NATO and the Pacific hub and spokes with Japan and others remain in place.
The US Establishment has not changed its self-serving narrative that the US since World War II is the rightful “leader” of the “Free World”. This Cold War mentality is deeply embedded and permeates the current generation of policymakers.
Washington’s foreign policy did get something of an update in recent years. The George W. Bush Administration was bogged down in the unnecessary Iraq and Afghan wars while China was making great strides in its development. A hawkish consensus reached prior to the 2008 election provided the basis for the Obama foreign policy presided over by Hillary Clinton.
Given the rise of China and the return of Russia, the US Establishment sought to update its Cold War policy for a new international situation. Strengthening NATO and the Obama “Pivot” to the Pacific indicated continuity in Washington’s Cold War geopolitics. The rhetoric changed, however, and instead of the “Free World” versus the “Communist” world it became “Democracies” versus “Autocracies”. The same zero-sum mentality and dividing the world into opposing blocs continued.
This hawkish Establishment consensus included a new geopolitical slogan that had developed since early 2000s. The slogan “Indo-Pacific” came to the fore under Obama and Hillary. The concept involved a US-Japan-India-Australia alignment which is often called the “QUAD”. Thus containment of the Eurasian landmass on the Asian side continued with NATO handling the European side although it was expanding also. Japan’s Abe derived his “Diamond” strategy from the US Indo-Pacific concept.
The China side offered an alternative. In 2013, during President Xi Jinping’s California informal summit with President Obama, he put forward the idea of a new type of major power relations. This embodied a non-zero-sum approach to relations and a “win-win” attitude. The US, however, continued its Cold War zero-sum mentality and policy.
Enter Donald Trump bringing a sharp change in tone and an aggressive anti-China policy. At the same time, the general atmosphere in Washington took on a nervous hysteria about China and Russia. The hysteria was and is bi-partisan.
Relations with China plunged under Trump so today the Biden administration confronts significant challenges. Rather than proceeding with thought and caution, the administration ineptly adopted an anti-China posture and let loose a cascade of negative rhetoric from even the new president himself. Such undiplomatic behavior on Washington’s part may have caused some initial optimism in Beijing to evaporate.
Throughout his political career, Biden has followed the Establishment’s foreign policy consensus. There is no reason to think that he will do otherwise. The changing international situation with the relative decline of the US makes it more difficult for the US to pursue a policy of hegemony.
Multipolarity is a feature of the international situation today. Some, like Russia, describe it as polycentric while others take note of increasing pluralism. This has led to Washington emphasizing its alliance structures and geopolitical concepts like the QUAD in an attempt to maintain hegemony.
Biden says he wants to restore US world “leadership” which some see as a euphemism for hegemony. He has made sharp comments directed against China and Russia going so far as to suggest that the Russian president is a “killer”.
The US touts its role in creating a “rules based” global order and the Biden administration has made it clear that this effort will continue. Others, however, point out that by this Washington means to create an alternate system to that of the United Nations and international law.
China, on the other hand, put forward the concept of a new type of major power relations. This would mean cooperation between major powers but within the United Nations format and international law.
In the short time that Biden has been in power, he has complicated his relations with China by increased pressure on human rights issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Further, his administration stepped up its use of the “Taiwan card” as leverage against China and also its military activity in the South China Sea area.
While such initial moves by the Biden administration are intended to build a so-called “position of strength” it remains to be seen how effective they will be. The administration has three and a half years to go. Considerable diplomacy will be needed to bring US-China relations to a correct and stable level given the depth of the present chasm between them.
Track Two contacts and back channel diplomacy can help prepare the way for larger initiatives. The two countries do already cooperate quietly in a number of areas and these could be deepened and extended. One thing to be avoided is the propensity of the US to engage in loud outbursts of “megaphone” diplomacy such as seen during the Obama administration and particularly in the Trump administration.
The Trump administration decimated the US State Department personnel and morale thereby undermining Washington’s ability to conduct competent professional diplomacy. Biden has stated that he will work to rebuild US diplomatic capability and strengthen the State Department. While this is a worthy goal, it remains to be seen how it will sort out.
The anti-China bias permeating Washington will not be easy for Biden to overcome. The Cold War mentality is part and parcel of the US military industrial complex which depends on hyping “threats” to increase budgets and spending. Because the US has been at war for the last 18 years, the Pentagon has been the dominant foreign policy actor and the State Department has been relegated to a far back burner.
The US Congress is dominated by hawks and a Cold War zero-sum mentality and they are fully dedicated to the continued militarization of US foreign policy. The anti-China hysteria, like the anti-Russia and anti-Muslim hysteria, is hard to overcome in the present day. So the Biden administration has its work cut out for it to make a case for normalizing relations with China not to mention with Russia and other countries currently in Washington’s dog house.
It is in the US national interest to find a way toward a new type of major power relations. The trend of the times is toward development and peace. The world is multipolar and the US is in a state of internal distress and decline as well as relative decline internationally.
The Biden administration must engage in what was once called an “agonizing reappraisal” of its foreign policy. In the present case, this means dropping the Cold War mindset and taking effective steps to engage the world constructively on the basis of mutual advantage and mutual respect. Cooperation rather than confrontation must be the order of the day for the Biden administration.