Biden’s assertiveness on China, Russia adds to superpower rivalry
For nearly two months following his inauguration, things were progressing according to plan for new American President Joe Biden. After a shaky transition period, Biden’s early days in the White House were mostly concerned with repairing the damage caused by his predecessor as he embarked on a healing process at home and began mending fences with the international community. However, 60 days into Biden’s administration, clouds are gathering over Washington’s relations with Beijing and Moscow.
This raises these questions: Is it a case of Biden attempting to assert himself as a principled leader who is not scared to position the US as a champion of liberal-democratic values even if it means confrontation with China and Russia? Or, in a world of superpower competition, is a clash between the US and those two powers inevitable, with the recent war of words simply a manifestation of this difficult-to-bridge conflict of interests and values?
The answer to both these questions is essentially in the affirmative. As the hopeful post-Cold War days of a global march toward democracy have long faded away — and, on reflection, such hopes were the result of sheer naivety and wishful thinking — the US and its allies must face a different reality. For many years the West generally, and the US in particular, has conflated the transition toward capitalism with a turn toward liberal democracy. Russia and China have never subscribed to this logic, nor had much respect for human rights. If, in the early post-Cold War era, there was some pretense of democracy, at least in post-communist Russia, not much remains of it 30 years on. Both Russia and China have taken an overt and bold turn toward authoritarianism, brutally suppressing political rivals and ethnic minorities while consolidating their influence abroad.
During his election campaign, Biden pledged to focus on domestic issues first; but no American president can escape the turbulent waters of foreign affairs. After all, the separation between domestic and foreign policy, especially for a political, economic and military power, is artificial to begin with.
The renewal of America’s close relations with Western liberal democracies allows him to confront Beijing and Moscow more effectively
In the aftermath of the previous administration’s stance, the reorientation of foreign policy that Biden has brought about in terms of returning to multilateralism and embarking on repairing relationships with allies, particularly within the EU and NATO — in other words the renewal of America’s close relations with Western liberal democracies — allows him to confront China and Russia more effectively. Speaking to the online Munich Security Conference in February, he didn’t mince his words, calling on America’s allies in Europe and Asia to “prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” through working together “to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity.”
As far as China was concerned, he drew a line in the sand by rallying his allies to accept stiff competition, but not under rules set by Beijing. The message was clear: He is not Donald Trump when it comes to style and civility — or the lack of it in Trump’s case — but will prove to be a tougher opponent if China doesn’t adhere to what he sees as fair play in global trade. Biden last week addressed President Xi Jinping, saying “no leader can be sustained in his position or her position unless they represent the values of the country.” Hence, he argued that he is committed to speaking against the way China is handling Hong Kong, the Uighurs and Taiwan.
The US has been watching China build the biggest and one of the world’s most powerful navies, while it also continues to exert its soft power with the far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative, tightens its control at home, and launches cyberattacks on the US and its allies. These are all challenges to Western interests and values, especially as America’s own global standing has been in decline for some time. Moreover, China’s support of North Korea as Pyongyang renews its long-range missile testing, and of the murderous military regime in Myanmar, is an opportunity for America to reverse its steady decline and reassert itself.
Similarly, Biden is taking aim at a Russia that enjoyed, for whatever reasons, free rein under Trump. Unlike China, Washington sees Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a direct threat to the US and its allies, attacking democracies and “weaponizing corruption to try to undermine our system of governance,” while also weakening the EU project and NATO. When Biden this month agreed with the suggestion that Putin is a “killer,” it might have been a reflexive reaction, but it left no doubt that, as well as perceiving resurgent Russia as a threat to the US and its allies, he holds Putin himself, in contrast to his view of Xi, in very low esteem. Putin’s response — of wishing Biden “good health” and pointing out, somewhat childishly, that “if you call someone names, that’s really your name” — and, more significantly, his recalling of Russia’s ambassador to Washington, illustrates a clash of interests, values and personalities with no obvious solution. This is likely to endure for the foreseeable future.
The US view of China and Russia is not that far from the truth, and the new administration’s reviving of relations with its natural allies in Europe and NATO puts it in a stronger position to contain and alter some of their behavior. However, after years of decline in its power and prestige as a true champion of liberal-democratic values, it has to first rebuild itself as a domestic, military and economic power that is principled in its relations in order to be in a position to rally international support in challenging Beijing and Moscow. There are early signs of such cooperation, as several European countries have already imposed travel bans and asset freezes, targeting senior Chinese officials who have been accused of serious human rights violations against the Uighurs, in addition to ongoing sanctions on Russia that have been in place since its annexation of Crimea.
China and Russia might not like what they have heard so far from Biden, but it is his — and his European allies’ — moral duty to air concerns about practices that violate international law and the conventions that both countries have signed, and act accordingly.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg