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Foreign Policy

Biden Stuck in Trump Quagmire

Apr 20, 2021
  • Zhu Feng

    Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University

More than two months after his inauguration in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden has given the American public a taste of the Biden style on the home front, from signing nearly 60 executive orders to persuading Congress to pass the $1.9-trillion pandemic relief and assistance package; from promising to have all Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus by May to initiating a green economy aimed at recommitting to environmental protection and emissions reductions. A recent poll shows Biden’s approval rating among adult Americans has reached 59 percent. In diplomacy, especially on China policy, the Biden administration’s performance has not only been mediocre, but also remains full of risks of escalating tensions. 

Contradictions in U.S. diplomacy 

China-U.S. relations sank to the freezing point during the presidency of Donald Trump. There were three fundamental reasons: First, the Trump administration, based on populist, white supremacist and anti-globalization values and policy ideas, bullied China economically, politically, technologically and socially.

Second, the outbreak and continuous spread of the pandemic resulted in the U.S. becoming the country with the largest numbers of infections and deaths worldwide. The Trump administration not only sought to find a scapegoat for its own failures by smearing China but also engaged in mad pandemic retaliation, attempting to vent and shift right-wing conservatives’ dissatisfaction with their country’s inadequate response to the pandemic, even though the mess actually originated from Trump’s inaction and incompetence.

Third, there are people who worry the pandemic will open a window of opportunity for China to surpass the U.S. in the left, middle and right wings of the American political spectrum, and some of those support Washington’s nearly hysterical, confrontational policies against China.

The Democratic Party should have gotten rid of the Trump quagmire with Biden as the new president and face squarely the tremendous harm the pandemic has done to the world and the possibility of it continuing to wreak havoc. It should have put respect for human dignity above conflicts of interest between countries. This should also be an important step for Biden’s proclaimed goal to reclaim U.S. stature as a “world leader.” Yet what we have seen in reality is the new administration’s diplomacy of endless contradictions.

Under Biden, the United States rejoined the WHO, and promised to provide $2 billion for global COVID-19 response and vaccination. When some U.S. allies in Europe and some developing nations cried for vaccines, the Biden administration sustained Trump’s “America first” approach and refused to offer assistance. Before assuming office, Biden pledged to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Yet after inauguration, it refused to lift sanctions against Iran. At the same time it launched missile attacks on pro-Iran forces in Syria, and continues attempting to deter Tehran with force. Instead of easing the crisis, Biden has conspicuously worsened it. 

He terminated the previous administration’s wall-building at the U.S.-Mexico border, but has refused to open the doors to immigrants out of humanitarian concern for more than 10,000 helpless children. More important, from Biden’s first international speech on diplomacy at the Munich Security Conference to the first video summit of the “four-party security dialogue” of the Indo-Pacific; and from the overseas trips of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin  and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to the messages sent regarding diplomacy and national security, the new administration has focused on strengthening alliances and boosting international pressure on China.

No wonder some say there is only China in the eyes of Biden diplomacy. While wanting to sustain the Trump legacy of ferocious suppression of China, the new administration has also attempted to take advantage of the forceful approach of the previous administration to create a groundwork of unity with the Republican Party in Congress. It even indulges in the wishful thinking that such diplomacy can make Beijing cave in and that the U.S. can easily maintain its status as the world’s hegemon. Ironically, instead of meeting its expectations, the tough China policy has instead been creating and promoting new divisions in the U.S.  

Racist violence at home 

Since the beginning of this year, violent attacks, verbal abuse and online harassment targeting Asians have surged across the U.S. Last year alone, the number of violent attacks against Asians surpassed 3,800. This is because, first, there is a tradition of racial discrimination against minority communities in the U.S.

Second, smears and demonization by the Trump administration and right-wing elements after the coronavirus outbreak dramatically fanned the flames of hate and discrimination against Asians. The attacks against Asian communities that vented racial hatred are the outcome of U.S. domestic political and social divisions.

The Biden administration’s tough China policy has, in fact, contributed to negative feelings at home. Attacks targeting Asians have increased since the beginning of this year. In the recent mass shooting in Atlanta, six out of the eight victims killed were female Asians. And when many media outlets accused white male American youth of racist violence against Asians, Christopher Wray, current director of the FBI, openly defended them, saying it was “very possibly” not true.

While Biden signed an executive order in early March asking local governments to strictly prohibit and prevent hate attacks against Asians, if the U.S. government and Congress maintain their peremptory, tough stances, and anti-Asian feelings continue escalating, violent acts will not subside. 

U.S. constitutional crisis 

Today’s problems facing the U.S. are no longer just a matter of ferocious fights between left and right — the kind that brought on a crisis of U.S. democracy as Trump supporters seized the Capitol — nor of white supremacy, domestic right-wing extremism and racism staining U.S. image. We’re watching as U.S. constitutionalism faces unprecedented institutional crises unseen since the American Civil War. The anti-China feelings may accelerte the collapse of the U.S. constitutional regime.

The Biden administration has inherited an America that has been severely weakened by four years of sabotage by Donald Trump, and it is a tremendous challenge for it to unite and govern well. The new administration may to some extent ease the pandemic and stabilize the economy, but it won’t be able to find fundamental solutions to such structural contradictions between the top and bottom, left and right, black and white or rich and poor that have been pestering the country. The phenomenon of people of Chinese and Asian origins being scapegoated by ultra-right white supremacists may continue to spread. What would such a U.S. domestic situation mean to China-U.S. relations? It's worrying.

The Biden administration assumed office on a promise of serving the American middle class. On China policy, however, it has refused to remove the tariffs imposed by the Trump government, turned a blind eye to China’s new moves in further opening its market, and continued the smears and suppression. This is against the original proclaimed intent of its foreign policy, which will do harm and deliver no benefit for the stability and effective governance of the present-day U.S.

Interestingly, though, despite the U.S. side’s policies of suppression and confrontation, many Wall Street investors continue seeing China as an investment market that promises the most steady returns in the future. It is time China-U.S. relations returned to win-win cooperation in the spirit of building a community with a shared future for humanity. 

(The original text was published on the Pangoal website. It has been edited for clarity.)

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