Nasty personal insults are flying between the White House and the Kremlin even as staggeringly blunt rhetoric erupts in the administration’s first big talks with China called to lay down the law on Biden’s tough new policy toward the dominant Asian power.
A remarkable day of intercontinental squabbling confirmed that US relations with China have plunged to their lowest point since President Richard Nixon’s pioneering mission to “open” the then-isolated communist state in the 1970s. US-Russia ties are, meanwhile, at their most difficult point since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Biden's First 100 Days
A simmering feud with Russia escalated when Biden blasted Vladimir Putin as a “killer” in an interview this week, promoting the stung Russian strongman and his aides to brand the new US commander-in-chief old and senile.
In Alaska, meanwhile, there were extraordinary exchanges in front of the press between US and Chinese officials on Thursday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of “deep concern” he had picked up about China’s behavior during a tour of Asia and condemned China for breaking rules that keep at bay a “a more violent world.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the US from Chinese critiques by saying it had “secret sauce” that helped it mend its imperfections – in a clear slam of China’s authoritarian state rule.
China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi then further shattered the normally choking protocol of US-China talks by asking: “Is that the way that you had hoped to conduct this dialogue? Well, I think we thought too well of the US.”
The exchanges – the diplomatic equivalent of a head-to-head quarrel that will reverberate across the Pacific – prompted a senior US official to accuse the Chinese of arriving “intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”
The most alarming feature of the showdown is how quickly it ramped up, with neither side willing to back down and each seeking to get the upper hand and have the last word in front of the cameras. This cycle of escalation will worry experts who fear that one of the many flashpoints between the rivals – including over Taiwan or China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea – could quickly erupt into an international crisis.
Given the brittle global situation, an attempt by a new American President to flex power in such an overt manner against two nuclear rivals might seem rash. But if anything, Biden is reacting to a strategic calculus that has shifted since he served as vice president in the Obama administration, that sought to reset relations with Russia and based its China policy on managing the peaceful rise of the coming economic power in the east.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertive, nationalist, authoritarianism has since transformed China’s global outlook and willingness to project strength. It is now locked in a regional and increasingly global competition with Washington.
While lacking the strategic weight of the former Soviet Union, Moscow has made undermining US influence and internal political cohesion a centerpiece of its global strategy – witnessed by its meddling in two US elections.
It’s clear that Biden’s tough talk, boasting about a coming US economic recovery and declarations that “America is back,” is designed to undercut the shared view in Moscow and Beijing that the US is gravely weakened by two decades getting into and out of the Middle East, its paralyzing political divides and one of the world’s worst pandemic responses.
Biden’s insults for Putin and efforts to get other major Pacific powers like India, Japan, Australia and South Korea on side before meeting China send another message: that the chaotic foreign policy in which former President Donald Trump fawned over autocrats in Moscow and Beijing, ignored allies and undermined his administration’s sometimes tough strategy is on history’s trash heap.
Russian ex-President mocks Biden’s age
Once Cold War rivals are now trading hot rhetoric.
Biden agreed with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this week that Putin was a “killer” – an extraordinary breach of protocol given that Russia remains a proud world power. He also warned the Russian leader would “pay a price” after US intelligence agencies concluded this week that he oversaw an effort to help Trump and harm Biden in 2020.
With the menacing ambiguity of a mafiosi, Putin wished Biden “good health” in response and challenged him to test his faculties in an online debate. In case anyone missed the point, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, once seen as the great hope of reset US-Russia ties in the Obama era, responded with a direct insult referring to Biden’s age as the oldest American president.
“It seems that time hasn’t been kind to him. … I can only quote Freud: ‘Nothing in life is more expensive than illness and stupidity,’” Medvedev said, according to the official TASS news agency. Not for the first time, attacks on Biden – and his age – by Russia and Trump seemed almost identical.
Yuval Weber, a global fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said Biden was sending domestic and political messages with his willingness to take on Putin so directly.
“I don’t think there is any way to more aggressively and markedly differentiate himself from President Trump,” Weber said.
“What Biden was able to do is to say to the US domestic audience as well as to Putin that there is a very different sheriff in town.”
There is, of course, a risk that personal spats between Washington and Moscow offer Putin the platform alongside the US President that he craves and thinks is Russia’s right as a great power. It’s hardly ideal when the men whose fingers are on the world’s two most powerful nuclear buttons back themselves into rhetorical corners. Still, Biden and Putin are both seasoned leaders who are well aware of the strategic risks of what was once a superpower showdown.
And Biden’s interview with ABC News also reflected the pragmatism underlying US-Russia policy. The President indicated he was willing to respond to Putin’s macho approach while finding areas of common interest when they arise. He mentioned the renewal of the new START nuclear treaty in the early weeks of his administration. “That’s overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange,” he said.
In reality, the US is in a stronger relative position with Russia than with China, a far more powerful adversary. And the areas of common goals with Russia are limited in what is an overwhelmingly adversarial relationship.
Washington recently accused Russia’s SVR foreign spy agency of masterminding the massive and vast “Solar Winds” hack on US private companies and several top government departments. Washington has spoken out strongly in support of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Russian state and was imprisoned on his recent return to the country. Biden’s team also opposes Moscow’s annexation and continued occupation of Crimea. And it has pledged to reinvigorate the NATO alliance – which was frequently denigrated by Trump and has long been a key instrument of US global power.
‘Adversarial when it must be’
Meetings between American and Chinese diplomats never publicly display the unpleasant scenes that unfolded in Alaska, which reflect the soaring tensions between a bullish China and an America defending its global primacy.
Things got off to a bad start after US officials made clear the talks were solely aimed at putting China on notice that Biden plans to cement the Trump team’s shift from seeking cooperation with Beijing to open competition.
“Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. And we will engage China from a position of strength,” Blinken said this month.
Washington this week clamped sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland officials over the crackdown on democracy in the former British colony. In another step that angered Beijing, the US Commerce Department issued subpoenas on multiple Chinese tech companies to see if they posed a national security risk in the United States.
There has been plenty of buzz in the foreign policy world about the possibility of a new Cold War between the US and China. If anything, that 20th century term fails to encapsulate the breadth of the contested issues and the fact that unlike the Soviet Union, the rising Asian power is embedded in the global economy.
US-China disputes on Taiwan, Hong Kong, repression of Uyghur Muslims, South China Sea sovereignty, espionage and the theft of US intellectual property are vast. And Xi’s China wields an industrial base and supply chains that are crucial to Western economies. Advanced technology also gives Beijing backdoors into the modern infrastructure of its potential enemies, meaning that any new Cold War will likely take place in cyberspace.
Reflecting its growing might, senior officials in the Xi era are far more willing to rebuke Washington than in nearly half a century of US-China relations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian bristled at a US-Japan joint statement this week, part of an effort by the Biden administration to create a united front of allies as a counter to China’s economic, strategic and military power designed to force Beijing to accept international rules that China rejects as an attempt to curtail its power.
“The international community will have a fair judgment on who is the biggest threat to world peace,” Zhao said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
One lesson of US foreign policy in recent decades is that plans hatched in Washington often don’t survive contact with the outside world. So Biden’s plan comes with some risk. A more assertive US approach could play into Xi’s nationalistic worldview and, if events in Alaska are any guide, has already caused Beijing to be even more aggressive. A tense overall relationship could scupper US hopes to forge agreements with China on combating climate change at a global summit in Scotland this year.
And there is no certainty that US allies will buy into the Biden strategy. Asian nations must live with the reality of China’s growing power in their own strategic neighborhoods. Many doubt the US attention span after various pivots toward and away from Asia in recent decades. And it is far from clear that the European Union wants to pick between the US and China – and sent a signal to that effect by signing a trade deal with Beijing just before Biden took office.