Common sense in the United States was that President Donald Trump was extremely hard on China but oddly soft on Russia. Critics accused its tariff war with China of being so aggressive it was counterproductive. Some have also claimed that Trump was living in the pocket of Vladimir Putin, for reasons unknown.
So when Joe Biden was elected president, the same analysts predicted that the new man would reverse that approach. Biden, they argued, would be more lenient with China in increasing the odds of productive involvement, while attacking Putin for allowing his government to interfere in the US election and for Russian criminals to hold hostages. American companies.
But when we examine the political choices made by their governments, rather than the political rhetoric and angry tweets of the men themselves, we find that this analysis is quite the opposite. Biden has proven to be much tougher on China than Trump, and he’s nicer to Putin and Russia.
Examine the evidence. After inviting Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, for a meal and a conversation at Mar-a-Lago, Trump followed the advice of advisers to be more aggressive towards the rising power. But his interest was limited to two areas. Obsessed with the US trade deficit with China and the political opportunities it created for him, Trump launched a trade war. He also supported aggressive administrative action against Chinese technological development and the national security threats it posed, especially with the restrictions placed on Huawei, the Chinese tech champion.
Trump and his team have said little about human rights violations against Muslims living in China’s Xinjiang region – despite some minor sanctions and export controls – or democracy in Hong Kong. And they have made little effort to urge Asian and European allies to participate in a coordinated strategy to contain China’s increasingly aggressive behavior beyond its borders.
President Biden, meanwhile, sees China as the most dangerous and deepest threat to the world’s democracy, individual liberty, and the national security of the United States. His administration has not backed down from Trump’s trade war. Sanctions and tariffs remain in place to increase the United States’ negotiating advantage with China in other areas, and they have tightened export controls to bolster the gamble. While Trump’s first meeting with Xi was literally dinner in sunny South Florida, Biden’s team met with other members of the Quadrangle countries resistant to China – Japan, India and the ‘Australia – ahead of a working meeting with Chinese officials in freezing cold Alaska.
The new president has also struggled to try to align the US approach to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing with the European Union, UK, Australia and Canada. While Trump complained that China had stolen manufacturing jobs in the United States, Biden launched a “Buy American” program designed to encourage American companies to restore those jobs.
And while Trump blamed China for what he called the “Chinese virus,” Biden backed a formal investigation into the so-called lab leak theory into the origins of the global pandemic. Anyone who expected Biden to seek deeper involvement with Beijing has been disappointed. The era of engagement is over, Biden’s senior advisor for Asia recently said.
Trump and Biden’s policies on Russia have also confused expectations. Trump has said a lot of flattering things about Vladimir Putin, but his administration and members of his Republican Party in Congress have taken a consistently strong approach to Russia’s aggressive behavior.
Sanctions were toughened under the Trump administration. The former president opposed Russia’s strategically important Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. His government approved the sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, fully aware that their main potential target would be Russian tanks. Trump has also increased the presence of US troops in Eastern Europe, mainly in favor of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who loves Trump and hates Putin. It was Trump who pulled the United States out of the Intermediate Nuclear Weapons Treaty (INF) with Russia and refused to extend the Start arms control agreement.
Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer” but treated Russia with much more restraint than Trump’s team. Determined to create a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia to focus US foreign policy on China’s challenges, Biden quickly extended the START Treaty and lifted sanctions on the Russian company building the Nord Stream pipeline.
When Putin met Biden in Geneva at Biden’s invitation, Biden kept his cordial tone despite the Russian attack on an American pipeline with a ransom demand and Russian support for Belarus’ decision to hijack a European plane to arrest a dissident.
There are three lessons in all of this. First, rhetoric is one thing and actions another. Note when the first replaces the second. Second, presidents and their governments don’t always stand in line. Trump wanted to improve relations with Russia, but hardly any member of his team agreed with him.
Finally, changes in foreign policy often reflect changes in the world. It is much clearer today than four years ago that Xi Jinping intends to pursue a more assertive nationalist policy. China’s progress in technological development, its assault on democracy in Hong Kong, the new evidence of repression in Xinjiang, and its military pressure on Taiwan demand a firmer response from Washington and its allies.
For now, the Biden government should try to keep Russia off the front page to focus on an increasingly controversial relationship with China.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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