Tuesday, 3 August, 2021

Transitional Jitters?

Dhruba Hari Adhikary


If President Joe Biden’s main goal of his first overseas trip was to reassure his country’s allies and partners, especially those in Europe, of continued American support, he appears to have achieved that. Europeans needed such an assurance after four years of the Trump administration which created lurking uncertainties due to distortions in the established American foreign policy. Biden offered to go for a course correction to make US security commitments to the 30-strong North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) firm and irreversible.
By doing so, he also made gains for himself so that the talks with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, in Geneva could be conducted from the position of strength. It is his long-held belief that the Kremlin fears a strong NATO. Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter categorically states that an attack on one member is an attack on all, thereby attracting a collective response. In Biden’s words, Article 5 is rock solid. Current case is Ukraine which is constantly troubled by Russia. That Moscow fears NATO is Biden’s assessment, ostensibly based on his two vice-presidential stints under the Barack Obama administration. Biden was entrusted with several assignments involving crucial bilateral parleys.

Chinese reaction
However, if President Biden simultaneously intended to send jitters to China, whom he considers US’ ‘strategic competitor’, his objective obviously needs time to be accomplished. And he himself might have anticipated that because of existing differences in perceptions and approaches to the issues besetting the universe which is already troubled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first Chinese reaction to the communique the Group of Seven (G7) issued on June 13 instantly surfaced through a statement from the Chinese embassy in London. The United Kingdom, which hosted the 47th summit of the world’s affluent countries, did not perhaps expect such a swift rejoinder. China accused the G7 of “baseless accusations”.
The communique was bound to attract such type of flak in view of indictable references it made to matters relating to human rights, Hong Kong, Taiwan and origins of coronavirus in China. Beijing has a tradition of resolutely rejecting interference in China’s internal affairs. It also is critical of the system whereby a small group of leaders sit together and come out with a prescription deemed applicable to all around the globe. “We (China) always believe...the days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” said the embassy statement. Subsequent responses and comments from Beijing can be expected to be tougher and stinging.
G7 summit provided President Biden an opportunity to take first steps aimed at articulating his ultimate aim of bringing the US “back at the head of the table” from where it can lead the free (democratic) world. A close study of the article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs journal (March/April 2020) helps to understand what he planned to do if he were to be elected president of the United States.”We have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again -- not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example,” he wrote as an aspiring candidate. As the sitting president, now he can implement his plans, policies and programmes. His pledge to consolidate democracy worldwide now requires him to “organise and host a global summit for democracy” in the first year of his presidency.
President Biden has also been consistent in reiterating that “China represents a special challenge” and therefore deserves tough treatment. To him, the challenge Russia poses is of average weight, and is largely confined to European theatre. Conversely, a rising China needs to be seen as a bigger force that can influence events on a global scale. At the centre of debate is the concerns for the values G7 and their extended fraternity cherish. The first part of the G7 agenda for global action (i.e. June 13 communique) alludes to determination to “embrace our values.” Explaining the commitment, the document refers to democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. It is here where G7 stalwarts claim China’s position is untenable.
But China has a different view, and has a set of values some of which might not be compatible with the Western values. To focus on an individual’s liberty has its merits, to look after collective wellbeing of an entire society too has its advantages. There are areas where both approaches are useful and essential. The burning issue of climate change is an example of a challenge that demands collective efforts. President Biden and the rest of G7 members agree on this point.

Diplomacy as a tool
The hostile tone adopted in the G7 communique and remarks made at -- and after -- the NATO summit in Brussels appear to have prompted Beijing to respond angrily. Some of these responses are naturally reflected in the Chinese media. Ding Gang, columnist for the Global Times newspaper, posed this question last week: “Will NATO regard China as its future target simply because China has different values?” Earlier in that week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the press at the White House that China has an enhanced economic and military capability but “they do not share our values.” His meeting with President Biden took place on June 7 --- shortly before the ensuing summits in Europe. As it turned out in Cornwell, Stoltenberg’s voice prevailed.
Despite this acrimonious war of words, President Biden is unlikely to engage in conflicts with either Russia or China. He knows and everybody else in his team knows high costs involved in such belligerent activities, and that too in the midst of a pandemic. Besides, the incumbent US president does not see China as an adversary, he accepts that country only as a serious competitor. And as a democrat, he knows how to oppose an opponent.
President Biden has already displayed humility; admitting that some of the past official steps were fraught with judgmental errors. “American leadership is not infallible; we have made missteps and mistakes,” he admitted well before being elected to the high office. “As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy,” he has promised.

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional issues. dhrubahari@gmail.com)