Biden ups the ante on Russia and China together: will the hardline work ?

For the first time in nearly 50 years, the United States of America has returned to a hard-line policy of contemporaneously confronting Russia and China

US President Joe Biden (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
US President Joe Biden (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Ashis Ray

For the first time in nearly 50 years, the United States of America has returned to a hard-line policy of contemporaneously confronting Russia and China. Indeed, this is arguably more high stake than before, with Moscow posing as potent, if different kind of threat, as in the past and Beijing now close to becoming a superpower as compared to its economically crippled state half a century ago.

In February 1972, US President Richard Nixon, pursuing a strategic framework formulated by his Harvard academic Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, travelled to the Chinese capital to meet the Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC) the Mao Zedong. The purpose was to reduce hostility and convert a hitherto hostile regime into an ally against communist Soviet Union – the umbrella state of which Russia was its primary part - then the Americans’ main adversary. The Chinese were ripe for the idea, for it had experienced a bruising and unfavourable border dispute with the Soviets in the 1960s and relations between the two Marxist giants had as a result deteriorated sharply.

Later in the 1970s, under China’s new supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese embraced market reforms. The West captained by Washington rewarded this by crowning the autocratic one-party state as the exporter to the world. This showered unprecedented riches on the country.

The expectation was prosperity will render it more democratic, into a greater respecter of the rule-based international order and less aggressive in its ambitions. Even after the brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy movement at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 the West didn’t change course.

On the contrary it wishfully imagined an unrest will cause a collapse of communism in China akin to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. With poverty much diminished, the prospect of this occurring has faded considerably. Moreover, the so-called democratic world has lately not painted an exemplary picture of itself to the Chinese people with the instances of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Recep Erdogan and Jair Bolsonaro, not to mention other tin pot right-wing extremists.

On the contrary, the economic behemoth the West erected has endowed China with the muscle of money-power diplomacy and formidable defence preparedness. A combination of these has emboldened a Maoist Xi Jinping and the CPC to indulge in nationalist belligerence both within and without its borders. The net result is a continuing trampling of Tibetan Buddhists, a persecution of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and a renewed bellicosity towards, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India and in the South China Sea.

All that while the rest of the globe has been pulverised by a coronavirus pandemic – originating in China – causing nearly three million deaths and an actual shrinking of other major economies. Multiple vaccines have been invented and have already been injected into the arms of hundreds of millions. But there's still an Everest to climb before the populace across continents can be immunised.

However, a windfall descended on the cosmos in the form of US voters ousting Trump from office – a power the American intelligence has concluded he stole in the first place with the assistance of Russian cyber interference in the 2016 presidential election, thus denying victory to Hillary Clinton. Trump pussyfooted President Vladimir Putin of Russia; and blew hot and cold on China until the latter’s disregard of its treaty with Britain in respect of Hong Kong forced a tougher line.

Within 60 days of the seasoned Joseph Biden assuming the reins of the US presidency, there is a dramatic and daring change. In a high-profile interview last week, the television network ABC put it to him: “Director of National Intelligence came out with a report today saying that Vladimir Putin authorized operations during the election to denigrate you, support President Trump, undermine our elections, divide our society. What price must he pay?”

Biden replied: “He will pay a price. I, we had a long talk, he and I, when we, I know him relatively well. And I, the conversation started off, I said, ‘I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared’.”

ABC persisted: “So what price must he pay?"

The President responded: “The price he's gonna pay we'll, you'll see shortly…There's by the way that trite expression ‘walk and chew gum at the same time,’ there're places where it's in our mutual interest to work together. That's why I renewed the START Agreement with him. That occurred while he's doin' this… that's overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity, that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange. That and SolarWinds as well. He's been, they've done some mischievous things, to say the least. And so we're gonna have, I'm not gonna announce what I'm doing, but he's gonna understand that.”

Such a public warning to Russia and its head of state by an American president was rare even during the Cold War.

Following that, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, a diplomat with a track record of skilful diplomacy, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan jointly met China’s top diplomat, politburo member Yang Jiechi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Anchorage, Alaska, after consulting with key Asian allies Japan and South Korea. Journalists gaped and gasped as in their presence Blinken and Yang exchanged barbs for over an hour. Media access to diplomatic talks are generally restricted to photo-ops and bland audio.

Blinken said he was hearing “deep concern about some of the actions” the Chinese government is taking. He added the US and its allies were united in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad. Biden’s view on tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by Trump is still to be revealed. But his stand on democratic values and China’s human rights abuses have been spelled out. The Anchorage meeting was preceded by US authorities revoking of Chinese telecoms licences and subpoenas being served on its information technology companies over national security concerns; and further sanctions on China over Hong Kong.

Constructive engagement was Nixon’s doctrine, which successors largely adhered to. Now, though, there is a bipartisan consensus in the US Congress for no compromise with China. Given Russia’s perceived capability in cyber warfare and China’s significant economic and military strength – both non-existent pre-1972 – it’s undoubtedly an audacious gambit on the part of Biden, considering the current challenges faced by the American economy.

Russia and China have also buried the past and could potentially move closer if intimidated by Washington and the West. The US certainly enjoys an armaments and technological superiority over both and possesses the weapon of sanctioning individual Russian and Chinese officials and their families. But it will have to dig deep to find a balance between restoring livelihoods and economic buoyancy post-covid and unlocking financial resources to sustain what is likely to be a sustained struggle to tame its rivals. Triggering inflation would probably be a worry.

Clearly, Biden decided to grasp the bull by the horns forthwith – thereby affirming the US cannot be messed around – rather than drift in the hope of persuading by a softer touch. It will certainly make Russia and China watchful, perhaps even defensive, and averse to incitement. Time will tell whether they will fall in line.

( The author is a senior commentator based in London. Views are personal)

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