Dr. Cheng Li: During the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, senior officials have actively pursued forming a united front to confront China’s global outreach.

ABU DHABI, May 9 – A paper published by TRENDS Research & Advisory reflects on the US President’s first 100 days in office and how Joe Biden has taken a tough stance closer to Donald Trump than experts had predicted.

In the paper – Understanding the Trajectory of Biden’s China policies: What the 100 Days of Biden in Office Tells Us – Dr. Cheng Li, a Non-Resident Fellow & Director and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, claims that Joe Biden “has largely continued the Trump Administration’s hawkish approach toward China.”

In response to such an unexpected strategy, “China has enhanced its diplomatic, economic, and military relationship with Russia and Iran in recent months, resulting in the closest ties these countries have had in the post-Cold War era.”

The author sees this geopolitical landscape of today as reminiscent of that defined by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, who then warned the American foreign policy establishment of “an anti-hegemonic” coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. “It would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.”

The US officials’ active attempts to form a united front to confront China’s assertive conduct against Taiwan, Australia, and North America, and Europe indicate that “a new anti-China Cold War is imminent,” the paper claims. The author cites the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Summit hosted by the White House, which brought together the top leaders of Japan, Australia, and India for the first time.

During the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, senior officials actively pursued forming a united front to confront China’s global outreach, says Dr. Cheng Li. “Foreign Secretary Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Japan and South Korea, Blinken and Austin’s respective meetings with the EU and NATO leaders in Brussels, and Austin’s visit to India all reflect the urgent need for coalition building. Notably, the White House also hosted a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Summit via video conference, bringing together the top leaders of Japan, Australia, and India for the first time. In mid-April, President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met at the White House, and some US media sources characterized this US-Japan summit as being “all about China.”

The author identifies the core group of the bloc competing against the US-led coalition: China, Russia, and Iran. “Despite the absence of an “ideological glue” or trust among these three countries, they are inclined to show solidarity to combat what they perceive to be a formidable threat from the US-led military bloc. During a visit to China in late March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “Sino-Russian relations are now at the best level in history.” A few days later, on March 27, 2021, China and Iran formally signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement,” the author says.

Dr. Cheng Li, in the meantime, refers to the Biden Administration’s position regarding Taiwan as Beijing’s greatest concern. “The fact that the representative of Taiwan to the United States was invited to attend the inauguration ceremony of President Biden, an act unprecedented since the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in 1979, was a bad omen for the Chinese government….. Unsurprisingly, in PRC media, aggressive anti-American rhetoric has reached a new high, resulting from what the Chinese have called “US provocative conduct to challenge Beijing’s redlines.”

Having said the above, the author, however, clarifies that the Chinese leadership is also cynical about the effectiveness of a US-led Cold War-style bloc. “Beijing is keenly aware that some leaders in Europe and Asia have been critical of or have expressed reservations about Washington’s inclination to form a Cold War-like bloc.”

From an even broader perspective, the author continues, “the outlook on China in many countries in Africa, South America, and Asia profoundly differ from that of the United States. These countries don’t appear to see China as a security threat to world peace. They don’t perceive China’s economic outreach efforts, including the Belt and Road Initiative, to be “predatory” or “debt trap” diplomacy. As Joseph Nye recently observed: “Nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 for the US. Furthermore, China plans to lend more than $1 trillion for infrastructure projects with its Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, while the US has cut back aid.”

Elaborating on how Chinese sentiments made a U-turn during Biden’s first 100 days in office, the author said the Chinese leadership believed that Biden could have achieved domestic and global priorities faster and more effectively through US-China bilateral cooperation. However, they realized there is no essential difference between the present and the preceding US administrations.

“Senior Chinese officials soon realized that the window of opportunity was extremely narrow, if it even existed at all, considering the political and strategic assessments of the Biden administration. The now well-known comment by China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, to his American counterparts – “we thought too well of you” – has reaffirmed the widespread sentiment in China prior to the Anchorage dialogue that “there is no essential difference between the Biden team and the Trump team. Many Chinese now believe that the Biden administration could be more detrimental to US-China relations than the Trump administration.”

The author claims that two important factors, one relating to the domestic political environment in the United States and the other reflecting China’s competitive edge, may help explain the current dangerous standoff in the bilateral relationship.

“The American public’s increasingly hostile view of China, largely stemming from exposure to the issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and blame directed at China due to COVID-19, has further pushed the Biden team to take a tough stance against this authoritarian regime.

“The second important factor that explains the Biden administration’s hesitancy to pursue cooperation with China is grounded in the daunting challenge of Chinese economic and technological competitiveness. Over the past two decades, China’s GDP per capita has increased from about $1,000 in 2001 to $10,000 in 2020 and is expected to reach $30,000 in 2035. In comparison, in 1979, when China began its economic reforms and opening up, the country’s GDP per capita was less than $300, accounting for about 3 percent of that of the United States at the time.”

The author cites a warning by Veteran US statesman Henry Kissinger, wherein he said that an “endless competition between the world’s two largest economies risks unforeseen escalation and subsequent conflict that is more dangerous than that in the Cold War era.”

Dr. Cheng Li concludes by emphatically echoing a similar warning: “The Soviet Union in the Cold War era was relatively weaker than the US and not integrated into the global economy.” He also said the current situation is more dangerous given the availability of “artificial intelligence (AI) and futuristic weaponry” in addition to nuclear armaments.  Neither country could win a total war or destroy the other, and thus, the two countries and the greater international community need to find an entirely new way to coexist. The consequences of following the current path toward confrontation would be catastrophic not only for both countries but also for the entire world.”

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TRENDS Research & Advisory strives to present an insightful and informed view of global issues and challenges from a strategic perspective. Established in 2014 as an independent research center, TRENDS conducts specialized studies in international relations and political, economic, and social sciences. It undertakes rigorous analyses of current issues and global and regional developments, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

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08 May 2021