Two months into his term, President Joe Biden is showing that for all his criticism of former President Donald Trump, his team won’t make major changes to his predecessor’s hard-line approach to China. On human rights in China’s Xinjiang region, on Hong Kong’s eroding freedoms and even on tariffs, Trump-era policies remain in place.
“At least initially, they’re sticking with what Trump left them,” said Aaron Frieberg, a professor of foreign policy at Princeton University and a national security aide under President George W. Bush. “On concrete things like saying China is committing genocide in Xinjiang — that was a land mine left for them on the way out the door — instead of trying to work around it, they just embraced it.”
The meetings in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday and Friday will bring U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan together with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The talks are expected to be contentious, a chance for both sides to lay out their disagreements in a relationship that has soured markedly in recent years.
The encounter will also offer a case study for adversaries and allies alike: On key issues around the world, the Biden team’s rhetoric has changed from the Trump era — emphasizing cooperation with allies and concern for human rights — but its actual policies aren’t that different.
China is the most prominent example so far, but there are others: On Saudi Arabia, Biden held back from sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even as he went beyond Trump by publicly implicating him in the death of columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden is taking up Trump’s push to reinvigorate the Quad alliance of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India. Blinken has praised Trump’s “Abraham Accords,” the rapprochement between Israel and countries in the Middle East.
And while Republicans in Congress accuse Biden of weakness, he is sticking to opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, is refusing to remove sanctions on Iran unless it returns to compliance with the nuclear accord that Trump abandoned and is keeping up a frequent resort to financial sanctions as a tool to express disapproval.
The biggest continuity is the motivation for U.S. policy. Trump called it “America First.” For Biden and his advisers, it’s a foreign policy that responds to the needs of the American middle class. Gone is a vow to spread democracy around the world, or the idea of America as the world’s lone superpower.
“In the same way that Donald Trump came in and wanted people to believe he was making a dramatic departure from Barack Obama, there are elements of consistency and they don’t necessarily want to admit to that,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “There is a recognition that if you don’t at least gesture toward how U.S. foreign policy delivers benefits to the American people, then you’re going to have a problem.”
Biden’s supporters — and Trump’s critics — argue that there have been several major departures: The U.S. has rejoined the World Health Organization and pledged more than $2 billion to a global coronavirus vaccination campaign. It has vowed to restore the Iran nuclear deal and rejoined the Paris climate accord, an area of potential cooperation with China.
One legacy of the Alaska meeting would be if the U.S. and China schedule a virtual meeting next month between President Xi Jinping and Biden focusing on climate change. That could happen if the talks in Alaska are viewed as successful, according to people familiar with the situation.
Biden’s supporters also say it’s the “how” of foreign policy that he’s doing differently. Biden has pledged to work with allies, rather than handing them ultimatums. So far, one of the biggest changes has been what Biden hasn’t done: no more surprise tweets from the Oval Office, no more sudden swings or erratic decisions. Process is back.
“There will always be some form of continuity, but the change is in how to achieve your objectives,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “When it came to Russia or China policy, Trump had a different policy than the rest of his administration and those two were often in conflict and much of the administration spent their time trying to catch up.”
At the same time, the administration has made clear that for all its rhetoric, it’s going to stick to a pragmatic approach that will often disappoint human rights activists. In addition to keeping the Saudi kingdom as a crucial ally, officials have indicated they intend to maintain a partnership with Egypt, which has long been criticized for ignoring human rights.
There’s another way Biden is like Trump: For all his talk about working more closely with allies, he’s already shown a willingness to offend them at times. Canada, for example, was unhappy with Biden’s decision to cancel permits for the Keystone XL pipeline soon after taking office.
And many challenges are ahead. NATO allies still lag in defense spending. Japan and South Korea remain beset by tension. Turkey remains committed to Russia’s S-400 missile system. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is shunning U.S. entreaties to talk as he continues to expand his nuclear arsenal.
“They’re still comfortably ensconced in the virtue of their superiority and haven’t yet had to face the tawdry discontinuities of their approach,” said said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “If it turns out other countries are no more willing to support American priorities under a Biden administration, then it has real-world consequences.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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