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Biden’s Balancing Act: Modern American Blunders In Asia

In this four-part series, Megan Dewhirst will investigate the need for the United States to establish an end goal for their foreign policy towards China, and will outline the challenges that Biden faces, and what the potential outcome of the current relationship may be.

Biden’s new approach to China and America’s Asian allies, comes at a pivotal moment in which China’s continued ascendency and increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region challenges America’s unipolarity (Hansler, Gaouette, and Atwood 2021). Therefore, it is crucial for the Biden administration to establish an authoritative foreign policy towards China, in order to preserve their hegemonic status in the international order. 

The Biden administration has established a foreign policy agenda focused extensively on the development of cohesive strategies, with a distinct turn towards rebuilding alliances within Asia. However, the administration has also emphasised that policy towards China shall be starkly different from Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, despite staffing his cabinet with ex-Obama officials (Swanson 2021). Similarly, Biden has plainly declared he is ‘not going to do it [relations with China] the way Trump did’ (Wertime 2021). So, why does Biden need to distinguish himself from his predecessors so greatly?

When it comes to ineffectively dealing with rising powers in Asia, partisanship does not seem to effect presidential outcomes. President Biden’s predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, may have very little in common, but both serve as models for how to unsuccessfully conduct relations with China. 

For President Biden, the Obama years and the infamous ‘Asian Pivot’ serve as a visceral and personal reminder of what not to do. Despite Obama trying to contain the growth of China through strengthening Asian alliances, increasing trade, and raising America’s military profile, as he stepped out of office in 2017, China was in ascendency and Asia was increasingly sceptical of America’s strength (Tisdall, 2016). Asian allies, such as Taiwan and the Philippines, perceived America’s weakness to be so great that they took matters into their own hands through island fortification and, more controversially in the case of the Philippines, ceasing maritime cooperation with the U.S. (Tisdall, 2016). As a result, by 2017, China was increasingly looking to usurp the U.S. unipolarity and disrupt the global order. 

Consequently, as Obama’s successor took the helm, Washington heavily pushed a hard-line approach towards China to ameliorate this threat. However, what occurred under President Trump was a foreign policy of chaos. On the one hand, President Trump intervened to end sanctions against Chinese technology company, ZTE, as a favour to Chinese President Xi Jinping, while simultaneously refusing to involve the U.S. in holding China to account for human rights abuses (Wong and Crowley, 2020). With the other hand, he sanctioned a trade war. Trump had very little cohesion with his legislature and executive team, and as a result frequently undercut his advisors (Wong and Crowley, 2020). Subsequently, by the end of Trump’s tenure, relations with China were at an all-time low, with the Coronavirus pandemic straining the relationship further. 

Resultingly, over the previous two presidencies preceding Biden, China’s status and power in the global order continued to ascend, while China’s relationship with the U.S. became increasingly tense, due to a lack of cohesive and transparent foreign policy. This places China firmly in a position of power, and the U.S. on the back foot looking for a way to reaffirm their authority and reinstate the international order, centred around an American hegemon. Consequently, for Biden to successfully contain the power of China, he needs to outline a clear break from his predecessors in order to give credibility to his administration’s pursuit of effective foreign policy with China. 

References:

  • Cooper, Z. and Brands, H., 2021. America Will Only Win When China’s Regime Fails. [online] Foreign Policy.
  • Hansler, J., Gaouette, N., and Atwood, K., 2021. “US and China trade barbs after Blinken warns of need to respect global order or face a ‘more violent world’” CNN Politics
  • Swanson, Ana. “Biden on ‘Short Leash’ as Administration Rethinks China Relations” The New York Times. February 17, 2021. 
  • Tisdall, S. 2016 “Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ failed. China is in ascendancy” The Guardian
  • Wertime, D. 2021 “’Extreme Competition’ is now the watchword in U.S. China relations” Politico [online]

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