Could the presidency be a poisoned chalice for Biden?

Following 47 years of service, Joe Biden has landed the top job and will become the 46th President of the United States.

After several agonising days as the ballots were counted, Biden managed to surpass the magical number of 270 electoral college votes. In an election with unprecedented voter turnout, Biden secured the most votes of any candidate in US election history. Donald Trump, who was supposed to be swept aside according to the pre-election predictions, secured the second largest amount.

Whilst Biden managed to secure the states Hilary Clinton won in 2016 and simultaneously flip those that Trump secured, such as Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, it was not plain sailing. A sense of dissatisfaction is likely to prevail too because the Democrats failed to wrestle control of the Senate.

Yet securing victory in the fraught election could prove the easiest and most straightforward part of Biden’s Washington journey, which is instructive of the challenge ahead.

The outgoing president Barack Obama left his successor a note urging him to ‘sustain the international order that expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War.’ Instead, Trump promised an intransigent ‘America First’ platform, essentially going against the long standing Washington foreign policy consensus. His contempt for the traditional system of global alliances was unmistakable as the subsequent four years consisted of carrying out those pledges in the most detrimental manner. He withdrew from vital accords like the Paris Climate Agreement and reprimanded prominent international leaders who were key strategic allies, illustrated best by his verbal abuse of Germany’s Angela Markel regarding NATO defence spending. Then at the height of the global pandemic, he initiated plans to formally withdraw from the World Health Organization.

It is therefore of little surprise that Biden is planning to permanently disconnect from the Trump playbook. One of the first things he will do, the former vice-president has stipulated, is ‘get on the phone with the heads of state and say, ‘America’s back, you can count on us.’

But planning and committing to something does not guarantee its uncomplicated execution. The predicament with the Iran nuclear deal is a case in point. Biden has castigated Trump’s ‘dangerous failure’ of the maximum pressure policy on Iran and instead vowed to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement that Trump exited in 2018.

Biden is hopeful that by re-committing to signing the agreement, Tehran will return to compliance, though ostensibly, such aspirations could be improbable. Among the complexities are Iranian demands for compensation for damages it suffered following Trump’s restoration of nuclear-related sanctions, which brought the Iranian economy to its knees.

‘Aside from returning to the deal, the next U.S administration should compensate Tehran for the damages during the withdrawal … and of course make commitments to ensure that such violations are not repeated,’ Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabeie recently stated.

Suggestions are that even though the residence of the White House will change it will be business as usual and no meaningful shift in policy direction as far as the Iranians are concerned. Iranian officials say any talks with Biden will not take place before Iran’s presidential elections in mid-2021 and the unwavering message is that the US should not expect much compromise from Iran’s side.

Much of Biden’s Iran policy is hedged on a return to the agreement, but the apparent barriers in place on that front may foreshadow what challenges Biden faces when it comes to the foreign policy landscape.

For example, one of the few policy ideas Trump and Biden sang from the same hymn sheet for was China. Biden has historically been a Sinophile, and even notoriously played down Beijing’s global monopoly in 2019. ‘China is going to eat our lunch? Come on man!’ he exclaimed.

But a year is a long time in politics and he has since fashioned himself as a Chinese hawk. He now calls President Xi Jinping a ‘thug’ and has reiterated the need to mount an ‘effective pushback against China.’ The increased bitterness between the two powers lately is likely to have contributed to Biden’s evolved outlook.

Under Trump’s watch Washington hit China with trade tariffs, sanctioned Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and stepped up aid and support for the democratic and self-governing island of Taiwan. The former president’s rhetoric was also increasingly aggressive regarding China, as he repeatedly blamed them for the coronavirus outbreak, often labelling it the ‘China virus’, and recently threatening to ensure Beijing will ‘pay a big price for what they’ve done to the world.’

Such sentiments have only strengthened China’s desire to flex its muscles and its forceful international posture in recent months has been reflective of that. In July, when two US Navy aircraft carriers conducted joint military drills in the South China Sea for the first time in six years, China retaliated with a series of ballistic missiles. What followed was a firm message in the state-run media, warning that ‘China does not fear a war’, in what was a striking example of the accelerating tension between the two states.

The Democrats have already called for tougher trade enforcement and some Senators unveiled a $350 billion spending plan recently ‘to confront the clear and present threat China poses to our economic prosperity and national security.’ Such proposals are being described by observers as the Democrats’ own version of Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, as it becomes unambiguous that Biden has China in his sights.

Michael Carpenter, manging director of the Penn Biden Centre for diplomacy and global engagement, Mr Biden’s own think tank in Washington, has stated the importance of standing up to China and echoed Biden’s sentiments. He emphasised that dealing with China was ripe for the kind of alliance and consensus-building the former vice-president believes in.

‘When you think about confronting China, it only makes sense when you bring together European allies, the Japanese, South Koreans, Vietnamese and others together’, he added.

The recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting in Tokyo between foreign ministers from Australia, India, Japan and the US was centred on the containment of China. Whilst it was undertaken by the Trump administration, it also demonstrated the type of inter-state approach Carpenter alluded to. However, the meeting itself provided scant evidence of new cooperation between the four countries.

China would have presumably watched events unfold in Tokyo with glee as it provided new evidence supporting Beijing’s view that America is in rapid decline and no longer dictates the global agenda. A decline Trump was the agent of. He dismissed multilateralism, abandoned international institutions and strongly endorsed the destruction of other blocs he could not himself shatter, best illustrated by his encouragement of a no-deal Brexit. Such actions reflected an administration and a country determined to disengage itself from the rest of the world.

As the Trump era reaches its conclusion, the repercussions of his methods are still being felt. Shortly after Biden won the election, 15 countries, led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc and joined by China, Japan and others, announced they had struck the world’s largest trade deal, covering about 30 percent of the global population and a similar share of economic output.

The accord, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), would cut tariffs on everything from Japanese auto parts to Malaysian palm oil and solidify supply chains within a sprawling new trade zone that would be larger than the European Union in population and gross domestic product.

Taken together, the newly thrashed out deal and the recent security meeting in Tokyo illustrate that the US’ international importance and calibre is diminishing and the regional and global rules are being set without Washington.

That is why China firmly believes, as Yuan Peng, the influential president of the Ministry of State Security’s China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, recently wrote, ‘Even if Biden wins… America will have a hard time reassuming its role as a world leader’.

Such rhetoric from Beijing is to be expected as they were anticipating that perhaps the degree of aggression may wane, but the suspicion emanating from the White House concerning China will remain regardless. But the evidence also suggests there is some accuracy to their claims.

The cornerstone of the US-led global order that Washington spearheaded and overlooked for several decades, and Biden is adamant on restoring, is the authority and importance of international institutions. Problematically for a Biden administration, the global bodies his predecessor abandoned were wilfully embraced and reshaped by China in the same period. Therefore, the rules-based order is eroding steadily and no longer exists in the capacity it once did.

China has managed to gain compelling influence in all the institutions that would have theoretically been used by the US to thwart Chinese influence. For example, whereas most Western diplomats in organisations like the UN are entry-level figures, in the last decade, China sent its very best and most talented diplomats to the UN and resultantly Chinese nationals now run four major UN agencies: The International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Industrial Development Organization. Chinese diplomats have also run the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs since 2007, and the country has expanded its participation in UN peacekeeping operations.

Many of these organisations play an important role setting international standards. For example, the International Telecommunication Union is responsible for allocating radio-frequency bands and coordinating the worlds satellites. Now China is in a position where the ITU pays no heed as Beijing sells its model of ‘cyber sovereignty’, a term that describes China’s stringent state control of online media activity.

In theory, the holders of jobs in these kinds of organisations are supposed to be neutral but not all disguise their political interests. This was evident in 2018 when Wu Hongbo, a former undersecretary-general for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told a studio audience that although he was an ‘international civil servant’ who could not take orders directly from his own country’s government, that rule had exceptions: ‘When it comes to Chinese national sovereignty and security, we will undoubtedly defend our country’s interests.’

Palpably, international regulations, standards and norms still exist. The problem for Biden is that those rules are being prescribed by the very powers they were in place to stifle. Suddenly, Biden’s insistence that Washington must shape the rules seems a tough assignment.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. For European leaders, a Biden administration would mark a return to more familiar grounds. He has a long track-record of supporting American engagement of Europe and has previously called the European Union an ‘indispensable partner of first resort’.

The Europeans expect Biden to focus on strengthening NATO as opposed to actively sabotaging it like his foregoer, and Biden himself has expressed his intention to reverse Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Climate Accords. Biden is also not a fan of Brexit and has expressed that previously which is likely to receive an enthusiastic reception in the continent. Perhaps most importantly, Europe shares Biden’s apprehension towards China and feel with him at the helm, not only will he be less ideological and erratic in his approach, he will favour constructive engagement – the preferred European modus operandi.

Conversely, the procedure, whilst conceivably manageable is unlikely to be without drawbacks. The transatlantic relationship deteriorated under Trump, but it was showing signs of strain even before 2016. In his final year in office, Barack Obama, almost in a Trumpian manner, slammed European ‘free riders’ and demanded Europe step up to share more of the burden of global leadership. That explains why French President Emmanuel Macron claimed the rot began under Obama, citing failure to intervene in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria as the first stage in ‘the collapse of the Western bloc’.

As a result, several officials, diplomats and aides in the US and Europe have accepted that the serious questions about America’s role in the world will not just diminish once Trump is dethroned. Ostensibly, these are concerns echoed in the continent. A Pew Research Centre survey shows that in several European countries the reputation of the US has plummeted considerably and the mistrust has broadened, reaching its lowest point for two decades.

Biden’s team will be under no illusions that the US brand has been damaged and the task ahead is a demanding one.

Not to mention, as convoluted as Biden’s foreign policy burden is, it will play second fiddle to the domestic agenda early on something Biden has emphasised himself. Given the global pandemic has crippled America, with the plight only compounded by President Trump’s whimsical and impetuous methods, his response is logical.

Within hours of being confirmed as the president-elect, Biden named a 12-member task force to combat and contain the spread of the virus. Reports also suggest he will push for immediate coronavirus legislation including calls for expanding coronavirus testing resources, as well as for increasing the country’s capacity to make personal protective equipment (PPE) by leveraging the Defence Production Act.

This apace with Biden’s ‘Made In America’ plan that will allegedly pour $400 billion into procurement measures to boost domestic manufacturing, as well as an additional $300 billion into research and development, reinforces the extent of his two pronged domestic agenda, that he hopes will put the US on the path to economic recovery.

But the limitation of prioritising domestic matters could mean yet more breathing space for powers like China to manoeuvre and bolster on other fronts.

Indeed, Xi Jinping is also looking inwards, as exhibited by China’s new Dual Circulation Strategy. The new approach sees the decoupling of global supply chains as an enduring trend, and so Beijing now seeks to place emphasis on both internationalization and self-sufficiency. This entails engaging international capital, financial, and technological markets when advantages can be gained while simultaneously sustaining indigenous capabilities to avoid overreliance on the global economy.

Jinping also recently pledged a further $1.4 trillion to invest in the development and deployment of advanced technological infrastructure such as 5G wireless networks, enhanced sensors and cameras, and automation. Xi Jinping made it clear in 2019 that a priority was to address the dangers of interdependence, hence his ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative, which aims to make China 70% self-sufficient by 2025.

In Beijing’s eyes, a world in which China is self-reliant is a world where the US has considerably less leverage over them. Problematically, whereas Biden is developing a domestic agenda to pick up the pieces, China already has a vigorous one in place which it hopes to advance in order to refine its international holding.

The paths the two countries are on could not be of a sharper contrast.

Whereas Biden is on a stabilising mission following a turbulent pandemic, China is exploring how to go from strength to strength, reinforced by the fact China’s economy has outstripped the US one and is the only big economy expected to show a positive advance this year.

To compound matters, the Democratic desire to make swift domestic progression could hit a stumbling block instantly. The Republicans are poised to maintain control of the house and Congress remains divided.

Biden left no doubts about his eagerness to oversee a paradigm shift in policy internally and on the international stage but he looks to be hamstrung on both fronts.

He may have replaced Trump and his apathy for him is unmistakable, but as he seeks to forge a new path for the US, he will be constantly reminded of the detrimental impact of the previous administration.

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