The Biden administration has been refreshingly, and somewhat surprisingly, direct and blunt about Russia and China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken hasn’t pulled any punches about the adversarial nature of the U.S. relationship with both authoritarian regimes.
Recently, President Joe Biden was asked whether he still regarded Russian strongman Vladimir Putin as a “killer,” a description he used during the campaign. “I do,” was the reply.
Russia and China are used to tough talk by American politicians during a campaign. But after taking office, diplomacyspeak usually takes over, anodyne rhetoric designed not to ruffle feathers or aggravate conflict.
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Donald Trump, with his foreign policy of randomly tossed rhetorical lightning bolts, was an exception. But Biden, as conventional a politician as America could produce as president, was expected to revert to the diplomacyspeak norm.
So the blunt talk coming from the Biden administration has been a jolt to both Russia and China. China’s top foreign policy official, in the first high-level meeting between the two countries since Biden assumed office, responded by publicly lecturing Blinken about the shortcomings and evils of American democracy and how it wasn’t a model for the rest of the world.
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I’ve always found ironic how little realism there was in the so-called realism school of foreign policy, to which Biden and his team are adherents.
But, in terms of the nature of Russia and China, under Putin and Xi Jinping, the Biden administration seems clear-eyed enough. They see the U.S. system of democratic capitalism as a threat to the legitimacy of their autocracies. They want to see us weakened, divided, less influential and less well regarded around the world.
And they will undertake to bring those things about — although, of late, we seem to be doing plenty of that to ourselves.
Biden thinks we need rebuilt alliances
It’s when you get to the question of what to do about it that the Biden administration loses its realism and gets misty-eyed about international relations.
As made clear in the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document, the approach will be to rebuild alliances with other democracies as a counterforce to Russia and China. With European democracies regarding Russia, acting through NATO and in coordination with the European Union and Britain.
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Regarding China, a two-tiered approach. On China’s increasingly aggressive regional hegemonic thrusts, working primarily through what’s become known as the quad: Australia, India and Japan, in addition to the United States. South Korea would be added if its differences with Japan could be overcome.
On economic matters regarding China, an even larger coalition is envisioned involving other Asian countries, democratic and otherwise, and European democracies.
What can we expect from other countries?
What’s less clear is what the Biden administration wants these refurbished alliances to do. And even less clear than that is what it would be realistic to expect them to do.
The United States has imposed aggressive sanctions regimens against Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. None of them has changed the behavior of the targeted regimes.
The EU, Canada and Britain recently joined the U.S. in imposing sanctions against Chinese figures for the oppression of the Uyghurs. A very safe bet is that these won’t alter Chinese behavior a bit.
Except for small democracies on Russia’s border that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, European countries no longer fear Russian tanks rolling across their borders.
China’s neighbors do regard it as a threat. This is in part over territorial disputes. But even more to their freedom of action in international and economic relations. They don’t want to be absorbed into China’s orbit.
Biden should plan on limited support
But China is the largest trading partner for most of them. They have a tightrope to walk and won’t want to unequivocally join a U.S. alliance designed to confront or contain China.
The European democracies don’t regard China as a security threat. And the EU recently reached an investment agreement in principle with China, designed to increase the flow of capital in both directions.
Europe’s main objective is increased access to China’s domestic market for its companies. It isn’t going to have much interest in being part of, or being perceived as being part of, a U.S. alliance to bring China to heel.
The Biden administration needs to be spending some time thinking about what the U.S. should do vis-à-vis Russia and China with limited support and cooperation from other countries. Because, if we’re being fully realistic, that’s where we’re going to end up.
Robert Robb is an editorial columnist at the Arizona Republic, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter: @RJRobb
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Biden is right about China and Russia but wrong on what to do next