President Biden took his first steps into the international minefield like a soldier marching ahead with the attention necessary to avoid pitfalls at a time when the domestic crisis requires him to focus on two huge issues – the urgency of vaccinating Americans and the stickiness of an economic relief project. Outside the U.S., Biden has to dodge two mines, how to deal with Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi. They are cool customers who are going to make Biden’s foreign policy another tricky undertaking. And then there is the issue of handling the European allies who are relieved that Donald Trump is finally out of the picture but are afraid that American weakness will have worrisome effects in their neighborhood. What complicates the picture is the unfolding of a new kind of relationship between Europe and China, leading to cooperative agreements that would widen the Chinese market to European investments and reduce discriminatory behavior on both sides. The signing of such an agreement has been delayed by the heavy hand of the Chinese in Hong Kong, by the genocide that suffocates the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the aggressive tone of Chinese projection of newly acquired military strength. But the main uncertainty concerns the United States and the strong effort mounted by the Biden administration to shape a multilateral approach to relations with China. The Europeans have taken stock of the damage that Trump’s erratic actions wreaked on Western solidarity vis a vis China. And now President Biden is asking for a common front, a clear departure from the unilateral and nationalistic bent of his predecessor.
Biden’s inclination is toward the hard line, not just in terms of China policy but toward Putin’s attempts to sow discord across the whole gamut of transatlantic consultation and cooperation. The persecution by Putin of his number one enemy, Alexei Navalny, is an issue that deepens the sharp divisions between Europe and Russia. The visit to Moscow of the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrel – ostensibly to discuss the crackdown on Navalny’s supporters – proved to be useless as it only confirmed that the European leaders have no chance of improving relations with Moscow. Obviously, this view is fully shared by the new American administration as another incentive to regain its role in transatlantic relations.
The case of China is different insofar as any agreement between Europe and China – such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments – would represent a political and symbolic success for the Chinese authorities. The U.S. is determined to control the economic and technological advance of China by leveraging the refurbished alliances with its partners and applying strict rules of transparency to Chinese companies that are present on the New York stock market. No fewer than 30 Chinese entities with military connections are already essentially delisted. More importantly, this course of action receives strong support in Congress and ultimately from the American public.
In conclusion, the tension between the U.S. and China is destined to increase and the competition will intensify. However, it will not lead to war. As the former Australian PM Kevin Ruud points out, Washington and Beijing must find out ways to carry out their competition within a set of ground rules that both sides respect. “The alternatives are bound to be catastrophic,” Rudd warns. In the hands of Joseph Biden, a fundamentally cautious president, the “strategic competition” with China devised by the Trump administration will be maintained while the strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement, that theoretically should bring about a change in China’s basic political system, should be abandoned as unproductive wishful thinking. In sum, the U.S. and China will have to coexist. And the strategic competition will have to be managed for a long time to come.