President Biden’s emphasis on building partnerships to deal with global challenges has been welcomed by US allies. They will be closely watching the recent developments in the context of Washington’s ties with Moscow and Beijing, since many of them may be forced to make tough choices of their own in the long run.
Days after senior US and Chinese officials engaged in a heated exchange of words at a meeting in Alaska, President Biden excoriated China at a press conference on 25 March. Only a few days earlier he affirmed his opinion that Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was a killer, and now said that Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping was a firm believer in autocracy. He said the Chinese leader ‘… doesn’t have a democratic – with a small “d” – bone in his body, but he’s a smart, smart guy.’
The Biden Administration’s tough stance on China and Biden’s approach to Moscow has drawn flak not just from both countries, who have hinted at forming a parallel grouping to the Quad, proposing a ‘regional security dialogue platform during the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 23 March, but is being looked at with apprehension by some allies as well as domestic commentators. Many analysts have argued in favour of a relatively nuanced US approach towards Russia, without being submissive, and exploiting some of the fault lines that exist between the two. Interestingly, Trump had suggested that Russia should be included in the expanded version of the G7 grouping, although that proposal was rejected. Biden’s reference to Putin and Xi in his address and his emphasis on democracies working together to counter China, signals that he is unlikely to change his stance. In fact, Biden referred to the meeting of the Quad leaders on 12 March and spoke about holding another meeting of democracies soon, saying He that one of the key agendas of that meet was to make China comply with international law.
Biden’s Speech and a Different Approach to that of Trump
Despite the aggressive tenor of his speech, Biden made some interesting points. First, he stated that the US understood that many allies had “complex” relationships with China, with several commentators and even members of Biden’s team pointing out that the US should not expect allies to make clear choices. Second, unlike Trump whose strategy seemed to be the imposition of tariffs on Chinese technology, Biden emphasised the need for investment in research and development and technology, and that China had surpassed the US in those endeavours in recent years. He stated that his administration would make real investments in those areas.
Third, Biden stated that US would continue to question China over its poor human rights record. On 22 March, the US imposed sanctions on two senior Chinese officials for their ‘arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs.’
While the Trump Administration took punitive steps against China for its violation of human rights in Xinjiang, Trump did not personally take a strong stance on the matter. In fact, according to former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, during a conversation with Xi, he actually supported Xi’s decision to build detention centres for the Uighurs.
How Allies Could Perceive the US-China-Russia Triangle
While US allies like India, Japan and Australia may not have identical views on China, the Biden Administration, by giving them space to manoeuvre and stating that it understands the nuances and complexities of their relationships with Beijing, has afforded them freedom to formulating their China policies. At his press conference on 25 March, Biden reiterated the point that the Quad is not ‘anti-Chinese’ and alluded to some co-operation with Beijing.
There are also differences between the US and its allies on dealing with Russia, and the downward spiral of Washington-Moscow ties could be concern them. The Trump Administration imposed sanctions on Turkey for purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia, including suspending Ankara from its F-35 aircraft programme, but noted that decision’s impact on NATO. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during his meeting in Brussels with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, urged him not to continue with the S-400 missile programme. India, a member of the Quad, is also acquiring Russian S-400 missiles, which could be a thorn in the otherwise burgeoning New Delhi-Washington relationship. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, during his visit to India, raised the issue amidst growing pressure in Washington to impose sanctions on India, under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if it goes ahead with the purchase. Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, urged Austin to take up the issue during his India visit and reinforce the possibility that the US could sanction India if it went ahead with the purchase. It is not just S-400 missiles, however; the US has also warned Germany about the possible consequences of pursuing the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, but so far Berlin has not indicated that it will change course.
In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration will continue to follow an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Beijing and Moscow or calm the situation. No pragmatic analyst would want Moscow to veer further towards Beijing, but without a course correction from the Biden Administration that outcome could be inevitable. The US’s partners also want Washington to engineer a less confrontational relationship with Moscow, since some of them, like India, have close defence ties to Moscow. Those ties aside, if Russia were to move closer towards China, it could result in stronger Moscow-Islamabad ties. The US-China-Russia triangle is complex, but Washington’s allies would likely hope that the US does not adopt an excessively simplistic approach to deal with that complex situation.