At least three key takeaways from his early foreign policy moves offer a clear view into his approach towards China.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi in Alaska later this week, in the first face-to-face interaction between the Biden administration and China.
The meeting is happening after a volley of diplomatic efforts by the Biden administration to strengthen America’s relations with its allies and partners in Asia as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Since taking office on January 20, President Joe Biden has moved quickly on China, leaving no ambiguity on where his foreign policy priorities are. At least three key takeaways from his early foreign policy moves offer a clear view into his approach towards China.
First, there is a consensus within the Biden administration that China, not Russia, is America’s primary rival. The Trump administration, which termed China “a revisionist power”, had reached the same conclusion. Mr. Biden takes it forward. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released by the administration, calls China “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”. According to Secretary of State Blinken, the U.S.’s relationship with China “will be the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”.
Second, the Biden administration would seek to engage with China on matters of mutual interest even if overall relations remain tense. In the Alaska meet, the U.S. would seek to establish ground rules and set red lines for their relationship, according to The New York Times. There are areas of mutual interest where the U.S. and China can cooperate such as climate change and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. China has also offered cooperation in these fields. There are geopolitical areas as well where both sides can continue cooperation.
The U.S. has already proposed a multilateral UN-led conference involving the representatives of China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan and the U.S. to find a lasting solution to the Afghan conflict. Similarly, the Biden administration has made its intention clear to revive the Iran nuclear deal which President Donald Trump abandoned. China, along with other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany and the EU, is a signatory to the deal. The U.S. would need China’s diplomatic support in its effort to bring the nuclear accord back on track.
Third, the main theatre of the U.S.-China rivalry is set to be the Indo-Pacific region. President Barack Obama had promised a U.S. “pivot to Asia”, but he was constrained by several other factors, mainly America’s involvement in West Asia. Mr. Trump took the U.S.-China rivalry to a new height, but he did it bilaterally — he took on China head-on by launching a trade and tech war and mounting sanctions. Mr. Biden seems to have returned to an old playbook — build an alliance system as a bulwark against China. For this, the U.S. needs both America’s allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia and partners such as India.
Unsurprisingly, the first country Secretary Blinken visited was Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would be the first foreign leader Mr. Biden would be hosting in the White House. During the Trump years, America’s ties with Japan and South Korea had soured over the President’s demand for higher payouts from those countries for keeping U.S. troops there. The Biden administration wasted no time in reaching deals with South Korea and Japan on sharing the cost for hosting U.S. troops — which these countries see as a security guarantee. Then leaders of the so-called Quad countries – the U.S., India, Japan and Australia—held virtual talks in their first summit. That a Quad summit was held within the first 50 days of the Biden administration points to the high priority Mr. Biden gives to the grouping in its Indo-Pacific strategy.
While all sides have said the Quad is not against any particular country, it is hard to miss what the common factor is. The U.S. has been a strong proponent of a stronger Quad. But it’s too early to say whether Mr. Biden would be able to rally the Quad and other American allies in the region such as South Korea against China in a bipolar contest.
Among the Quad countries, India is the only country that shares a land border with China which saw clashes last year. For Japan, South Korea and Australia, China is their number one trade partner and uninterrupted trade with China is important for their continued prosperity. But all these countries share security concerns with a fast-rising China. So are several other countries in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and even the communist Vietnam. The U.S. is trying to tap these concerns while trying to stitch together an Indo-Pacific alliance system.