In Washington, sooner or later, everything comes down to China.
The Biden administration justifies US policy on infrastructure, the economy and even on public services by the need to strengthen the country to better compete with China. America’s foreign policy is increasingly organized as a bid to counter the rising great power. President Joe Biden keeps saying he had to get out of Afghanistan because China loved the US being bogged down there. Take some of the biggest issues rocking Washington – the Covid-19 pandemic and the fight against climate change – and China is at the center of them. The furor over the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa about Donald Trump’s final days in office was most heated over claims that the top US military officer called Chinese counterparts to reassure them the then-President wouldn’t attack.
China’s perceived power is so great that the idea it poses a threat is about the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats, Trump and Biden supporters can actually agree. Biden has put democracy promotion at the center of his presidency – there’s no need to guess why. And President Xi Jinping has taken on an outsized persona. Both the current and former president have each publicly boasted about their phone calls with the Chinese leader to highlight their own status and toughness.
It is perhaps a commentary about waning US prestige as the dominant global power after a tumultuous first two decades of the 21st century that so many leaders spend so much time defining the country against the next great US adversary.
The United States is running to catch up. The hopes at the dawn of the 2000s that ushering China into the global economic system would inexorably promote internal political freedoms and a placid global partner foundered. Now Washington’s response has to be built hurriedly on the fly.
In this context, it’s not surprising that France should have found itself trampled by Washington’s China fixation this week. The Biden administration big-footed a deal for Paris to build conventional submarines for Australia with a new strategic alliance with Canberra and London that will see stealthy nuclear-powered boats sent down under.
Understandably, the French erupted with fury, motivated by more than embarrassment in Paris, that Washington had prioritized an anglophone compact over its oldest alliance.
‘A stab in the back’
The deal was announced suddenly, with no regard for France’s global ambitions or self-image as an important power and totally overshadowed Europe’s own unveiling of its own Indo-Pacific policy.
Biden's White House
“Speaking politely, it’s a real stab in the back,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on French radio Thursday, in remarks that were far from polite. That jab was at Australia. But he was not less sparing about the United States. Months after Biden went to Europe and declared America is back, Le Drian unfurled the ultimate insult.
“This is a decision that is unilateral, brutal, unpredictable. It really looks like something Mr. Trump would do,” he said.
The word “unpredictable” was a real blow. European leaders didn’t expect to agree with Biden on everything. But they at least expected the sudden lurches in US policy that would have grave consequences for their own security, which were a feature of Trump’s term, would be replaced by a return of diplomatic civility.
The flap over Australia will do nothing to dim an impression across the Atlantic, fueled by Biden’s lack of communication with the allies over the US pullout from Afghanistan, that he has a narrow interpretation of US interests and cares little for how his actions might complicate the political position of allied leaders. Biden, for all his touting of a return to alliances, does seem to be getting a reputation for clumsiness with allies whom the US will need in a pinch.
But it’s unlikely that Biden set out to deliberately antagonize France. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who partly grew up there, did his best to smooth over the controversy. “France in particular is a vital partner on this and so many other issues stretching back generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.” His comment was a reference to France’s belief that, given its territories in the region, it has a vital role and clear belief that it had been betrayed. As France’s ambassador to the US, Philippe Étienne, told Hala Gorani on CNN International: “We want to be part of the Indo-Pacific strategies.”
US ‘will not leave Australia alone’
But while the trans-Atlantic alliance remains a cornerstone of US foreign policy, the current episode makes clear that it is no longer the dominant one. During the Cold War, the preeminent threat to the United States was centered in Europe – and the challenge from the Soviet Union. Its next great foe is in Asia, so it is not surprising that its focus is turning there. If then-President Barack Obama engineered a pivot to Asia, Biden is presiding over a headlong rush there. This means there is a new reality in Washington to which America’s traditional allies will have to adapt.
Still, the decision on the submarines could have implications in other areas of foreign policy. The extremely rare US move to share technology with Australia on the nuclear plants that power the boats could weaken its arguments against nuclear proliferation elsewhere, in negotiations with Iran, for instance.
The agreement between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom came with such compelling political and geo-strategic advantages for each, that France wouldn’t have a chance of blocking the deal on the submarines, had it known. (Étienne said the first Paris heard about it was in the Australian and US press.)
The entire focus of Biden’s foreign policy is on the rising challenge from China. And senior administration officials say they are alarmed by the increasingly aggressive and nationalist approach from Beijing, toward Taiwan, in the South China Sea and toward American allies like Australia. Washington’s answer is to draw its allies into a broad anti-China coalition.
“The United States will not leave Australia alone on the field, or better yet, on the pitch, in the face of these pressure tactics,” Blinken said Thursday.
“We’ve raised publicly and privately our serious concerns about Beijing’s use of economic coercion against Australia.”
The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Australia has been alarmed by fierce economic and diplomatic pressure from China. Effectively, it has now chosen sides in any new Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The introduction of a new Australian fleet of nuclear-powered submarines will not transform the geopolitical picture in the Asia-Pacific region. But in conjunction with the allied international forces that Washington views as sharing its burden in safeguarding free navigation there amid Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims, it could help shape the balance of power. In another step in his campaign, Biden will host a summit next week in Washington – including Morrison and the other two members of the so-called Into-Pacific Quad powers, India and Japan – in another unmistakable sign to China.
Post-Brexit Britain under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has two overwhelming foreign policy goals – projecting global strength independent of its former European partners and cozying up to the Biden administration. The anglophone alliance represents a mission accomplished on both counts and a propaganda victory against Brussels. The United Kingdom currently has one of its two new super aircraft carriers deployed in Asia in a sign of its intent. That and Australia’s decision to seek US sensitive technology for its submarines may indicate that Washington is paying close attention to allies that prove their commitment to its Indo-Pacific policy with military clout as well as diplomatic support.
There will need to be some hard thinking among European leaders. While Britain and Australia have now fully signed up to Biden’s efforts to contain China, France, Germany and European Union leaders have been more cautious – apparently seeking a middle path between two great powers.
The last few days prove that making such a choice brings consequences.