Presidents usually have a hard time concealing astonishment at questions, in their view, that ignore geopolitical realities. Joe Biden is no different.
The phenomenon is doubly true for ones that spent decades walking and talking with reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I disagree with the basic premise of your question,” Biden said during a March 24 news conference in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He had been asked about China. The phrase was President Biden, once again, channeling Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Biden, a gavel he held several times.
What followed was a mini-lecture that revealed plenty about how his foreign policy has evolved since taking office, and his approach to the major power competition chess board.
Biden was still Senate Foreign Relations chairman in January 2009, when he stepped down to become vice president. A decade later, he based part of his 2020 White House campaign on his knowledge of the world and relationships with global leaders.
For those who have watched Biden closely since he first took the Foreign Relations gavel in 2001, his answers to several questions during that Canadian news conference likely were no surprise. For those still trying to understand the 46th diplomat in chief, they would be wise to study his answers.
Biden was asked about a recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a query framed in a manner that suggested the Moscow-Beijing alliance is, somehow, new. It isn’t. And he used his answers to try to give the media some historical and geopolitical perspective.
“Well, first of all, look, in 10 years, Russia … and China have had 40 meetings. Forty meetings,” Biden said. “And I have, we have, you know, significantly expanded our alliances. I haven’t seen that happen with China and/or Russia or anybody else in the world.
“Look, I don’t take China lightly. I don’t take Russia lightly,” he added. “But I think we vastly exaggerate” the newness of their alliance.
Notably, Biden also noted China has not given Russia weapons to use against Ukrainian forces. “I’ve been hearing now for the past three months about ‘China is going to provide significant weapons to Russia.’ … You all have been talking about that,” the president chided reporters. “They haven’t yet. Doesn’t mean they won’t. But they haven’t yet.”
Biden was sending a clear message that Russia and China are acting rationally (read: predictably) by showing the world they are united. Anything else would send a shock wave. He also was renewing his message to Xi that there would be economic consequences if Chinese-made weapons start showing up in Eastern Europe.
Another telling moment came during a March 21 White House press briefing, when National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was asked if the Moscow visit would, somehow, and for reasons not mentioned by the questioner, deter Biden from speaking to or meeting with Xi in the future.
The retired Navy rear admiral’s response was another lesson in major power dynamics from another veteran of that complicated global chess match. “The president wants to keep the lines of communication open with China,” Kirby said. “Nothing has changed about that. And as I said yesterday, at the appropriate time we’ll pursue another conversation with President Xi.”
The year is 2023. Joe Biden is once again a Cold Warrior. And he is signaling that he is resigned to needing Xi to act as a governor on Putin’s war machine. After all, someone has to be in Putin’s ear, and that person needs to wield great influence over the Russian strongman. Xi checks all those boxes. After all, Beijing is Moscow’s top trading partner — by far.
As Biden pivots to a major power focus, it is worth examining how U.S. foreign policy would change — and how drastically — if former President Donald Trump wins in 2024. While team Biden has mostly shrugged off the Xi-Putin summit as business as usual, Trump told Newsmax on March 24 that Washington should be pushing the two powers apart.
“Russia and China, by nature, it’s very hard for them to get together. We have forced them together, because of really stupid energy policy,” the 45th president said. “I don’t think there’s anything he’s doing well on. People have asked me which is the worst aspect of the Biden administration. Everything.”
Many congressional Republicans agree.
‘Less active role’
For foreign policy wonks, it is a safe bet that a victorious Trump would scrap most of Biden’s foreign policies come January 2025 — just like he did former President Barack Obama’s. That included withdrawing the U.S. from the Obama-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. Biden has, so far, resisted revisiting the Asian trade alliance — something even some Republican senators want him to do.
“I think this administration seems singularly disinterested in any trade policies. And that’s very disturbing,” said Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, ranking member of the Senate Finance international trade, customs and global competitiveness subcommittee. “We see that with the increasing role of China in the Indo-Pacific and the opportunity to rejoin some version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seems to be a logical extension of our strategy to deal with China’s rise.”
Even without re-joining the TPP, set up to counter China’s economic heft in the region, top administration officials have signaled a belief that more Chinese involvement could equate to more responsibility for Beijing. One example is Xi as the Putin whisperer. Another was Chinese officials brokering a pact aimed at improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“The Obama administration was fond of arguing that the Middle East needed to find its own equilibrium, where formerly adversarial countries continued to compete, yet their competition was contained and they engaged with each other against shared threats,” according to Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Implicit in that vision was a sense that the United States would play a supportive but less active role, and countries would take more responsibility for their own security and their own futures.”
That sounds a lot like what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said recently while reacting to news of China helping arrange the Saudi-Iranian pact.
“If this agreement actually bears out, and particularly if Iran follows through on the commitments that it’s apparently made, again, that would be positive,” Blinken said during a trip to Ethiopia on March 16. “From our perspective, anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and curb in any way dangerous or destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing.”
What’s more, team Biden appears to be betting that China will watch the longtime Mideast rivals, now having partial ownership of any nefarious activity their pact could yield.
U.S. lawmakers and officials from administrations of all political stripes have long warned about the transfer of large amounts of money from Washington’s allies and frenemies to its foes.
“I think they need to be very cautious about that,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., a senior Foreign Relations Committee member, said during a recent interview about Saudi officials expected to soon begin sending investment dollars for Iranian projects. “We want to make sure that there’s not additional available capital for Iran pursuing its nefarious activities, and funds become fungible.”
Asked about China’s role as broker, Blinken noted that Chinese officials merely hosted its announcement. But he also called Beijing’s role “a good thing,” adding: “I think it’s valuable that countries, where they can, take action, take responsibility for advancing security, for advancing peaceful relations.”
As some U.S. lawmakers continue warning about the possibility China might invade Taiwan, Biden and Blinken have never approached those members’ level of alarm. At least not publicly.
In fact, America’s top diplomats often sound like the Asia Society’s Jessica Chen Weiss, a former adviser to top State Department policy planners. She contends “there is little evidence that Chinese leaders see a closing window for action,” adding: “Such fears appear to be driven more by Washington’s assessments of its own military vulnerabilities than by Beijing’s risk-reward calculus.”
“Historically, Chinese leaders have not started wars to divert attention from domestic challenges, and they continue to favor using measures short of conflict to achieve their objectives,” Chen Weiss added. “The hard but crucial task for U.S. policymakers is to thread the needle between deterrence and provocation.”
With rhetoric that toggles between economic warnings and geopolitical straight talk, Biden appears to be attempting just that. When the president speaks about America’s top rivals, one can sense a favorite Bidenism for those less experienced in global affairs: “C’mon.”
Play the board wisely, and the president would bolster his 2024 résumé. But in global power chess, just a few wrong moves could doom his second term hopes to a checkmate.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.