One of the most critical points of departure expected from the Biden administration relating to the direction of US foreign policy is the renewed focus on US alliances and partners to meet the challenges emerging from ‘the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States’.
US President Joe Biden finally spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This raised a lot of speculation with regard to how the United States will deal with China. President Biden’s probable tilt towards China had already formed a major part of the debate among members of academic and strategic community. The growing US-China divergences on a number of important pertinent areas relate to bilateral trade, a rules-based Indo-Pacific security architecture and maritime domain. The telephonic conversation between the two leaders came at a time when the rest of the world has been keenly watching Biden’s moves in regaining US supremacy and how the US will achieve mastery in managing both regional and global politics.
Even before Joe Biden entered the Oval Office as the 46th President of the United States, the future trajectory of US-China relations was perhaps the most consequential debate for policymaking elites. There is no denying that the US-China relationship took a more confrontational turn during the Trump administration. The question is whether there will be any substantial change in the relationship with the onset of Biden presidency, or whether the downward turn in US-China relations will remain a feature irrespective of the change of guard.
According to the White House’s readout of the Biden-Xi telephonic conversation, President Biden, while exploring probable areas of cooperation, also made clear the areas of contention. Therefore, while talking of shared challenges such as “global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation”, Biden pointed out America’s “fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan”. It is incumbent for any incoming administration to carry out a review of the country’s foreign and domestic policies. The significance of this review is more apparent given the disruptive four years of the Trump presidency. However, barring some differences over the specific ways in which the Trump administration went about dealing with China, a strong bipartisan support seems to be emerging in Washington that China needs to be handled from a position of strength.
Another noteworthy telephonic conversation was the one between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, Director of the Office of the China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs. The readouts of the conversation released by the US Department of State and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reflect some acute divergences over Indo-Pacific affairs. The show of military muscle from both sides in the Taiwan Straits since the onset of the Biden presidency, points to a near future of continued competition, contestation and confrontation even as both sides attempt to manoeuvre areas of cooperation. While Blinken expressed America’s intention to work with allies and partners “to hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Jiechi urged “the United States to rectify its mistakes made over a period of time and work with China to uphold the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
One of the most critical points of departure expected from the Biden administration relating to the direction of US foreign policy is the renewed focus on US alliances and partners to meet the challenges emerging from “the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States”. In his maiden foreign policy speech, President Biden expressed the resolve to “confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance,” while saying that Washington was “ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so”. The US Department of Defense has also embarked on a department-wide China task force to revisit a number of areas, including strategy, operational concepts, technology and force posture with the purpose of confronting the China challenge. The recalibration of America’s China policy under President Biden seems to be geared towards a whole of government and bipartisan approach, supported by strong alliances and partnerships. Although critical of how the Trump administration went about executing its tough stance on China, Secretary Blinken in a recent interview with CNN, said, “So I think in fairness to President Trump he was right to take a tougher approach to China. That was the right thing to do.”
There seems to be consensus emerging within the Biden administration to adopt a strategy focused on dealing with China from a position of strength, whether it is cooperating where it is possible, or confronting China in areas which are adversarial and competitive in nature. Putting Kurt Campbell, the architect of Obama’s Asia pivot policy at the helm of affairs, regarding America’s Indo-Pacific strategy signals the resolve to deal squarely with China. In this context, the India-US strategic understanding and cooperation with other like-minded countries becomes even more imperative. President Biden during his telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to augment the bilateral cooperation “to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.”
Whether Biden would be able to take a firm view on China in consonance with a bipartisan hard line approach or keep continuing with the rhetorical criticism of China would become clearer in due course of time. The United States would require to balance China across the global spectrum. If the US shows the sign of a potential cut in defence spending by Biden’s Administration, it might prove detrimental to US interests at a time when China has been intensifying all its efforts in becoming a dominant power in Asia. It is high time the US started to believe in serious actions against China and not just believed in empty rhetoric.
Dr Arvind Kumar is a Professor of American Studies at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Dr Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.