The hidden agenda behind Biden’s first foreign policy speech

Bobby M. Tuazon
Posted by CenPEG
22 Feb. 2021

The proverbial approach of removing the chaff from the grain may prove useful in scrutinizing US President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech made last Feb. 4. Done objectively such approach lays bare key cognitive biases underneath his statement and helps one figure out the real intentions and motives.

Departing from Trump’s unilateralist “America First” doctrine, Biden pledged to be different by putting diplomacy that is driven by democratic values at the head of US foreign relations. Here, one can immediately discern an intent to pre-determine dealings with the world community according to values of electoral democracy, human rights, and international law. This behaviour predicates America’s high moral principles and puts the rest of the world – including its allies – befuddled by an unnecessary feeling of being different or worse, inferiority.

If Biden’s foreign policy is to gain traction it should refrain from claiming supremacy of values given the pervasive racism, social inequities, violence, foreign aggression and certainly weak democratic institutions that define the American psyche. Biden’s diplomacy track can move forward only by treating all nations on equal footing, respecting their core interests, imposing no conditions, and upholding mutual trust and benefits.

Biden is doubling time to repair the damage wrought on America’s alliance system by Trump’s retrogressive mistreatment of the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), and Asian allies while retreating from landmark treaties that served as pillars of such alliance thereby leaving the US more isolated. Biden’s toolkit includes convening an Earth Day summit and a summit of democracies this year.

A cloud of skepticism, however, looms big over the wisdom of staging a global summit of democracies. Its credibility blemished by Trumpist policies and the January 6 extremists’ siege on Capitol Hill, the US has lost any high moral ground to lead the summit. Too, the net of autocracy has grown far and wide with more countries threatened by it that Biden will find the summit - if ever summoned - eerily with too many vacant seats.

Now, the Biden administration has to rethink if the agenda in invigorating the alliance and pushing the summit is to broaden the web of friendly forces arrayed against China as well as Russia. The world has undergone profound transformation accelerated no less by Trump’s ill-informed policies that debilitated America already reeling from decades of economic recession, social division and political polarization.

Propelled by multilateralism and constructive engagement with Beijing, many US allies have gravitated toward economic cooperation as dramatized by, on one hand, the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which groups G-20 and Asia Pacific countries China, Australia, Japan and South Korea with Asean’s 10-member states and, on the other, the China-EU investment deal.

Reflecting EU’s sentiments, French President Emmanuel Macron put it tersely in an interview by the Atlantic Council on February 4, “A situation to join all together against China, this is a scenario of the highest possible conflictuality. This one, for me, is counterproductive.”

Multilateralism and constructive engagement with China opted by many countries including America’s allies runs smack against a traditional and hawkish foreign policy that lies at the heart of Biden’s foreign policy. Made more pronounced by recent policy pronouncements the track record of Biden, his vice president Kamala Harris, and his foreign, defense and security team belies any claim of adopting a pragmatic and “smart” approach to China.

As a senator, Harris co-authored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (2019) and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (2020). The first authorized the US to impose sanctions on individuals and entities accused of alleged human rights abuses in the former British colony. The second imposes similar sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in what Harris termed a “cultural genocide” against Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang province.

While he agreed with Trump’s tougher stance on China, State Secretary Anthony Blinken said he would take a different path concurring with Harris however in calling China’s alleged repression in Xinjiang as “genocide.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan vows to go more aggressively by “imposing costs” for what China is doing in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The equally hawkish Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Indo-Pacific czar under the National Security Council (NSC), has called for dispersing US forces in the bigger region to deter China’s increasing presence. Campbell is augmented by Laura Rosenberger at the NSC, and Kelly Magsamen and Ely Ratner at the Pentagon. “A new generation of Asia hands have emerged …that adopt a much more competitive-minded approach to Beijing,” says Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Biden, on February 7, iterated that his administration anticipates “extreme competition” but “no conflict” with China. How conflict with China can be avoided under an environment of “extreme competition” that may spawn miscalculations and provocations precisely creates the uncertainties and intractability of Biden’s foreign policy on Beijing. Ambiguity has no place in diplomacy and makes any negotiation fractious.

The advice that came out on the same day from Yang Jichie, Chinese top diplomat and Director of the CPC’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, in a phone talk with Blinken, is worth informative. The US, he said, should “work with China to promote the healthy and stable development of China-US relations by upholding the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation." Both
sides should respect the other's core interests, as well as political systems and developmental paths of their own choosing, he added.

The ball is in the court of the US president. But China should prepare for the worst.


A political analyst and book author, Bobby M. Tuazon is currently the Director for Policy Studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), a think tank based in the Philippines.

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