Russia, China tensions rise with White House
Relations between the United States and Russia and China under President Biden are getting off to a difficult and hostile start.
Biden this week agreed with an interviewer’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer” and said he’d pay for interference in U.S. elections. Putin responded by wishing Biden “good health,” a retort that reminded anyone listening of the poisonings of Kremlin dissidents.
A day later, U.S. and Chinese officials exchanged sharp words at their first meeting since Biden was inaugurated, with Beijing indicating the U.S. should be more worried about democracy within its borders than outside them.
The Biden administration is hoping to counter Russia and China by strengthening U.S. alliances and working in concert with partners to put pressure on both countries to change their behavior.
The antagonistic signals from Moscow and Beijing are showing the Biden administration that the two countries are willing to confront the United States as well.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security said the tough talk isn’t a surprise given the strength Moscow and Beijing believe they gained during the Trump years.
“Especially coming off of four years of the Trump administration, which created a very permissive environment for authoritarians to assert themselves, this is kind of a continuation of many of the trends that we’ve seen in recent years,” she said.
Despite the antagonism, the Biden administration is hoping to work with both countries in areas of shared agreement, like confronting climate change and repairing the Iran nuclear deal, to which China and Russia are both signatories.
But the president has also rallied allies to firmly denounce human rights abuses in both countries and impose costs by coordinating sanctions.
Critics of the Trump administration see Biden’s approach as a breath of fresh air given Trump’s friendly overtures toward Putin and his undercutting of official assessments of Moscow’s aggressive behavior.
The Biden administration has expanded sanctions against Russia over the poisoning and jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
The dust-up with the Chinese has prompted some solidarity among Republican lawmakers, who have been looking to attack Biden for being too soft on China.
“I have many policy disagreements with the Biden Administration, but every single American should unite against Beijing’s tyrants. Secretary [Antony] Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan were right to say ‘it’s never good to bet against America’ and should continue to hold firm exposing Chairman Xi’s fraudulent lies,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement Friday.
The Biden administration has said it aims to approach Beijing from a position of strength, using the recently passed coronavirus relief package as an example of economic resilience and conversations with allies and partner nations as a show of agreement and understanding of international rules and norms.
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested to reporters aboard Air Force One that the Chinese officials’ rhetoric was directed at a domestic audience and acknowledged that officials went into the meeting knowing the conversations would be “tough.”
The Chinese officials denounced efforts by the U.S. to rally allies, with Chinese foreign affairs director Yang Jiechi saying at the Alaska meeting: “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States … could represent international public opinion.”
Blinken responded, “I have to tell you, what I’m hearing is very different from what you described.”
The secretary arrived in Alaska following his first face-to-face meetings with allies in Japan and South Korea, following Biden’s virtual meeting with leaders from India, Australia and Japan, informally called the Quad and who all share concerns about Beijing.
“The Chinese appeared to be on the defensive following last week’s highly successful first-ever Quad summit and the visits by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense to Japan and South Korea earlier in the week,” said Lisa Curtis, who served as National Security Council director for South and Central Asia under Trump.
“Given the numerous challenges China poses to United States interests — human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; aggressive military behavior throughout the Indo-Pacific; and economic coercion of U.S. allies–it may be a good thing that the two sides did away with the diplomatic niceties and got straight to the heart of their differences,” added Curtis, who is a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.
Anthony Ruggiero, former National Security Council senior director and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he views the more aggressive rhetoric of Moscow and Beijing as an early test for the Biden administration.
“It could be an effort by both of them to press against this administration to see if they’re willing to push back, either through sanctions or other possible responses,” he said.
Ruggier added, “I think the comments yesterday in the Alaska meetings really show that the Chinese — shows in public what they do in private, which is attempting to bully people and, appropriately, the Biden administration pushed back.”
Blinken is headed to Brussels on Monday for meetings with senior officials in NATO, the European Union and Belgian leaders, with Russia and China expected to be on the agenda.
“We expect — even as you’ve seen in recent days — our relationship with Russia to remain a challenge,” acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker said in a briefing with reporters on Friday. “Clearly, NATO is very aware of that. And it is one that I think we’re prepared for.”
Russia and China have increasingly aligned their interests on the global stage, said Kendall-Taylor, of the Center for New American Security, and are looking to push back on what they view as a weakening U.S.
“Their ultimate goals were aligned and they still are. They both want to push back on the U.S., shift the international order away from something that’s less U.S.-dominated,” she said.
“In their actions, Russia is more of a disrupter, China prefers less confrontation, but they’re both working towards the same goals.”
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