Biden’s contain-China strategy

Published October 4, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

ADDRESSING the UN General Assembly last month, President Joe Biden promised a new era of “relentless diplomacy” and renewed US commitment to multilateralism that his predecessor so disdainfully rejected. In his first foreign policy speech since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden declared that US military power would now be an option of last and not first resort. He called for international cooperation to meet common challenges and pledged to work with allies. He also said the US was “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.”

Welcome assertions that contrasted sharply with the blustering rhetoric of President Donald Trump. But the Biden administration’s actions have been at odds with many of these words. Both policy towards China and Washington’s treatment of allies have not been consistent with these pronouncements. Consider what happened on the heels of the US departure from Afghanistan. As if to swiftly make good on the promise to pivot to bigger challenges — ie China — Washington forged a new trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia named AUKUS. The coalition’s aim is to counter Chinese power in the Asia Pacific region by assisting Australia to build eight nuclear-powered submarines equipped with Tomahawk missiles.

This effort at enhancing Australia’s naval power to challenge China’s military ascendancy in the western Pacific met a sharp response from Beijing. Accusing AUKUS nations of an “outdated zero-sum Cold War mentality”, Beijing denounced the move as “irresponsible” and said it would “undermine regional peace and security and intensify the arms race”. To be sure this deal is consequential for the international non-proliferation regime. As former IAEA official Tariq Rauf recently wrote, “it could well open up a Pandora’s box of proliferation with non-nuclear-weapon states also going in for nuclear-powered submarines and keeping nuclear fuel outside the scope of IAEA safeguards”.

The world’s most consequential relationship is drifting into uncharted waters in a fraught environment.

The immediate diplomatic fallout from the deal was a rift among America’s allies. Paris, which was not kept in the loop and saw Australia abandon its plan to acquire diesel-electric French submarines, reacted furiously. France’s foreign minister described it as a “stab in the back”. While Washington sought to calm French anger in a phone call from Biden to President Emmanuel Macron, the damage to relations was already done. The signal sent to Europe was that the US could act as it wished without taking allies on board. It laid bare the gap between Biden’s pledge to consult partners and his policy steps. Building a coalition against China by AUKUS opened up cracks in the transatlantic alliance which Biden had earlier sought to shore up for his anti-Beijing diplomatic strategy. The security pact also made many Asean countries nervous — their economies being closely integrated with China’s global supply chain.

Read: The politics of AUKUS

In the week following the AUKUS announcement Biden hosted a summit of Quad leaders — US, Australia, Japan and India — in another effort to fortify an anti-China front among regional states. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was resuscitated by the Trump administration in 2017 with the aim of countering China. But, as many Western analysts pointed out, Quad has now been undercut by AUKUS. US officials described it as non-military and “informal”. The haste with which Washington acted after its Afghan withdrawal — perhaps to shift attention away from that debacle — involved moves that appeared so haphazard as to leave many allies disconcerted. For example, a former Indian foreign secretary Nirupuma Rao said there was “a strategic ambush of Quad by AUKUS” and questioned its rationale when Quad already existed.

The statement issued after the Quad summit committed member countries to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. While it never mentioned China, the meeting — and indeed Quad itself — is focused principally on offsetting China’s rising power. The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman responded to the Quad summit by cautioning the US not to engage in “closed and exclusive small circles” while Global Times — which reflects Beijing’s views — depicted it as an attempt to “incite disputes and confrontation in the western Pacific”. What both the AUKUS and Quad moves have done is to intensify US-China tensions and confirmed to Beijing that a US-led contain-China strategy continues to unfold.

But while the Biden administration is stepping up anti-China efforts on the global front, at home its domestic agenda has been mired in the country’s intensely polarised environment. The irony is that while much energy is being expended abroad Biden’s grip on his own party is being tested by two key pieces of domestic legislation, an infrastructure bill and the social safety spending package, on which Democratic party liberals have strong reservations. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans who had blocked a debt limit bill came around to support stopgap legislation offered as a last-minute compromise by the ruling party. This averted a government shutdown and debt default but will keep government funding going only till December. It therefore kicks the can down the road with more bruising Congressional battles ahead.

Perhaps because of these domestic troubles Biden is adopting a more aggressive stance towards Beijing than expected as it is on the international front that he has greater room to manoeuvre. But he is also reflecting political consensus in the US for a tougher posture towards Beijing. For their part, Chinese officials see little to distinguish between Trump and Biden’s policies on China. On trade their approach is identical as Trump-era tariffs remain intact. Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned the US against engaging in a Cold War and see the Biden administration pursuing a strategy of ‘confrontational competition’. In September when President Biden had his first phone conversation with President Xi Jinping in seven months the Chinese leader is reported to have declined Biden’s suggestion for a summit meeting, insisting that the US first dial down its belligerent rhetoric and improve the atmosphere for such engagement.

Read: UN chief warns China, US to avoid Cold War

China’s interest nonetheless lies in steadying rocky relations as it has much to lose from prolonged confrontation. But in the face of a tough US posture, it has little option but to push back which it is doing ever more vigorously. All this indicates more turbulence ahead for the world’s most consequential relationship as it drifts into uncharted waters in a geostrategic environment that is already so unsettled.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2021

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