SOON after assuming office, US President Joe Biden, apparently referring to his intention announced during the election campaign to reverse the foreign policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, reportedly remarked that the enemy of the United States was not China but Russia. But in recent months, Biden on China has been sounding more and more like Trump. One popular commentator has thus been moved to suggest that Biden as a newly elected president and his foreign policy advisers should do their own thinking about how to deal with China.
In other areas, Biden swiftly reversed Trump's policies. He demonstrated his support of multilateralism by rejoining the Paris accord on climate change and the World Health Organization and agreeing to the appointment of the director general of the World Trade Organization. He showed climate change to be a top and central concern by organizing early on a virtual conference of the top 20 carbon-emitting countries. He struck down Trump's immigration policies that he considered to be racist and unwarranted. Recently, he made good on his announcement that as a basic policy, he would reinforce the alliances that the US had by attending a summit of alliance members at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he pronounced as sacred the US commitment to Article 5 ("An attack on one is an attack on all.")
Actually, the Biden administration has not finalized its policy on China. In his visit at the Pentagon, Biden asked the defense department to review all the policies that the US has followed on China. While some threads of thought in the upcoming paper should be familiar, others should be new as a consequence of the abovementioned changes in policy. Secretary of State Blinken might have accurately foreshadowed in the US-China talks held in Anchorage the eventual Biden policy on China when he said the following: "the US relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be and adversarial where it must be." In its pursuit of multilateralism and climate change control, the Biden administration will need the cooperation of China as well as Russia. But in curbing abusive trade practices and violations of the rules-based international order, the relations of the US with China and Russia would have to be adversarial.
During his first campaign, Trump did attack China but only repeated what seemed to be a bipartisan criticism of China's conduct in its trade with the US, including intellectual property theft and forced transfers of technology. Midway in his administration, perhaps realizing that diplomacy alone was leading nowhere, taking concrete steps in order for China to take US complaints seriously became the centerpiece of Trump's America First Policy. He went as far as penalizing companies doing their manufacturing in China. He launched a tariff war with trading partners with China as the principal target, aimed at persuading China to agree to measures to reduce the trade deficit. Trump cited security reasons for his raising tariffs on imported aluminum and steel.
During his election campaign, Biden slammed Trump's tariff war with China as devastating for businesses and consumers. But once in office, Biden and his foreign affairs and trade representatives have not shown any enthusiasm about reversing the previous administration's economic and trade policies toward China. An important reason maybe is that the China challenge is a singular area where Democrats and Republicans can agree on. While the US trade deficit with the world widened considerably, Trump succeeded in reducing the trade deficit with China.
Could it also be that Biden saw the public supportive of Trump's approach to China? The Washington Post that often brought Trump and his administration under withering criticism, calling him inter alia the greatest liar of all US presidents, has hailed Biden's current stance of keeping Trump's policies on China. The US, it said, should stop contributing to the economic progress of China because the latter converts its economic gains into military advantages with which to bully neighbors and dominate the world. The private sector should simply locate their factories in countries other than China, if not in the United States. It should look for sources of its supplies and develop markets in other countries. Anywhere else but China.
The Anchorage talks did not achieve anything outside of providing each side an opportunity to hear the concerns of the other. By all accounts, the meeting was acrimonious, with the US raising human rights concerns and China riposting it would not compromise on matters of national sovereignty that it considers those concerns to be. Moreover, China maintained that the US was being condescending and hypocritical for it had been committing, for instance greater human rights violations against Blacks and other minorities. Later, in his meeting with Putin, Biden explained why the US tied human rights to economic and trade relations. Not only does the matter reflect inherent US values, businessmen and investors before making their decisions look for political stability and the rule of law.
It has been speculated that the substance of Trump's policies on China would be carried over to Biden's after the White House not only retained but added to Trump's blacklist of Chinese companies for US investors. But there would be differences in their execution, like their application would be extended to US partners and allies.
The recent NATO summit attended by Biden produced one decision that may be considered historic. It decided to make the China challenge the focus of its deliberations. The move would harmonize the members' policies on China. Some European members had previously pursued different policies on China, like to participate in China's Belt and Road Initiative. It is a notable step because the alliance has traditionally focused on attacks or threats emanating from the North Atlantic and European areas.
Of course, Russia took center stage. Biden consulted the views of NATO members on his meeting with Putin in Geneva. All, according to Biden, were supportive of his plans to press the Russian leader to halt foreign-originated cyberattacks against the West, end the violent stifling of political dissidents, and stop interfering in elections outside its borders. Putin was to hear quite a different voice from the one he heard from Trump in Helsinki. It was not only the US President's. It was also that of the alliance. It would moreover be far from deferential and not avoid topics that might be unpleasant to Putin.
Secretary Blinken's agenda with China in Anchorage seems to presage Biden's in Geneva with Putin. "I am going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses, and if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and other activities, then we will respond, we will respond in kind."
Cybersecurity was bound to be on top of Biden's agenda. The total amount of ransom demanded by cyber criminals of US companies rose by more than 300 percent in 2020 over the previous year. Most alarmingly, they have begun to attack critical infrastructure. The ransomware on the Colonial Pipeline disrupted the supply of energy in the US East Coast, causing long queues at the gasoline stations. Biden asked Putin: What if we attack your oil and gas pipelines?
Biden's meeting with Putin in Geneva proved more productive than the Anchorage meeting of US-China foreign ministers. Although the two leaders pointed to each other's country as the leading source of cyberattacks, Biden and Putin have asked their ambassadors to return to their posts (they had been recalled over the Biden's raising the issue of Russian election meddling) to conduct consultations on entering into an understanding on governments' responsibility to tamp down cybercrime originating in their countries. They are also to start a strategic dialogue aimed at reducing the risk of unintentional conflict and restraining nuclear weapons. (The two countries have extended Start, but the treaty expires in 2024.)
The meeting did not reach an agreement on human rights; Putin, like the Chinese in Anchorage, considered the matter an intervention in internal affairs. But considering that his predecessor evaded the matter, Biden's raising human rights is already an accomplishment (Biden even warned at one point that the death of Russian opposition leader Navalny would have significant consequences for Putin.) It appears that Biden should be trusted to raise the issue of human rights at every international forum he attends, because as he said in Geneva, "human rights are in the DNA of the United States." Will persistence pay or will it take more than that?
The meeting having taken place very soon after President Biden assumed office, no spectacular breakthroughs had been expected. Biden justifies traveling for meetings thus: "All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It's the way human nature functions." On the timing of his recent meetings abroad: "Some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by" must be set early on.
(Readers will recall that our senior colleague Ambassador Larry Baja, chairman of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc., described diplomacy in much the same way in an article in this corner.)