Biden’s 100 Days: Key Foreign Policy Challenges and Initiatives

May 01, 2021 12:05 PM

President Biden has a history of opposing US troop presence in Afghanistan. He did not support the US troop surge ordered by President Obama in 2009.

President Biden has personally hosted a virtual summit of the heads of government of the other Quad countries - India, Australia and Japan. (File image)

By Dr Bappaditya Mukherjee

Considerable significance is attached to the anniversary marking the first hundred days of any US administration. At this juncture, the Biden administration has undertaken a host of initiatives in the domain of US foreign policy despite facing numerous challenges on the domestic front exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. With China and Iran, President Biden and his foreign policy advisors seem to be largely following through on the policy positions articulated during the Presidential campaign. In addition, climate change will be a critical part of the Biden administration’s diplomatic initiatives. President Biden has also announced that September 11 would be the withdrawal date for US troops from Afghanistan.

The Biden campaign had indicated last year that it would lower the rhetorical temperature with China. At the same time, Biden faces strong domestic compulsions precluding a re-engagement with China. Currently, China is overwhelmingly unpopular among the American mass public. According to the latest polls by Gallup, only 20 percent of Americans hold a favourable view of China.

The Biden administration has largely concurred with the Trump administration’s diagnosis that the US-China relationship is fundamentally competitive. The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance builds upon several of the themes on China outlined in the National Security Strategy published by the Trump administration in December 2017.

Key members of the Biden team also believe that the punitive measures taken by the Trump administration against China have been largely ineffective. This is particularly the case with trade as the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration resulted in a net loss of American jobs. Yet, they also do not want to be seen as capitulating to China. This could be why Joe Biden has indicated that his administration will not reverse course on tariffs imposed by his predecessor in the near term.

For the moment, the Biden administration’s China policy is likely to be guided by the principle of “competitive coexistence” which calls for a reassessment of the policy of perpetual confrontation. At the same time, the US would acknowledge that it is in strategic competition with China and focus on developing counter-balancing coalitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Recent actions by the Biden administration have been viewed as highly provocative by the Chinese authorities. The Biden administration loosened the restriction on US officials from meeting their Taiwanese counterparts and sent a delegation of retired US politicians to Taipei to send a ‘personal signal’ of support. These included former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg.

At their first high-level diplomatic meeting in Alaska under the Biden tenure, the US and China traded charges on a host of issues. The US side led by Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken criticized China for cyber-attacks, the treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong. In turn, China pointed to the hypocrisy of the US lecturing China on human rights issues given the revelation of deep divisions in American society about the status of minorities. The persistence of US tariffs and the Taiwan initiative has led some observers to conclude that the Biden administration has decided to carry forward the hardline of the Trump administration on China. This conclusion is premature. Some even perceive that US engagement with China despite the latter’s assertiveness indicates a begrudging acceptance of its heightened power and influence. Despite the overheated tenor of the meeting, it is highly significant that a high-level dialogue between the two countries took place. This is not surprising since China remains critical for Biden’s key foreign policy agenda: restarting and strengthening the global climate change regime.

It has been reported that President Biden has conveyed to foreign governments his intention to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade. The hope is that with US leadership on this front, some of the other leading contributors to greenhouse gases will increase their commitments as well. Significantly, the U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has already visited Shanghai to meet with Chinese officials to look for points of convergence in climate negotiations. The US will try to get China to make a stronger commitment to global climate goals ahead of a summit of forty world leaders hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 22, including Prime Minister Modi.

Biden is also aware that taking on China will not be as easy as it seems. As Robert A. Manning has recently noted in the magazine Foreign Policy, there is not much support among the traditional US allies in Europe and Asia to undertake hostile actions to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. There is widespread fear that pushed into a corner, a weaker, impoverished China would pose a greater threat to the stability of international and regional order. For example, just before Biden’s inauguration, leading EU nations – France and Germany – concluded the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China despite an informal request from the incoming administration not to do so. Although the EU imposed sanctions on China in response to the treatment of the minority Uyghur population in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the move appears to have been mostly symbolic.

As of now, China’s assertiveness has convinced the Biden administration to invest more resources in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad as an off-shore balancing coalition. It is also likely to expand economic partnerships with like-minded partners in the economic realm and the domain of rules governing high-tech sectors.

President Biden has personally hosted a virtual summit of the heads of government of the other Quad countries – India, Australia and Japan. At this summit, the agenda of the Quad was expanded from maritime and defence cooperation to vaccine diplomacy. The four leaders agreed to combine their resources to send 1 billion coronavirus vaccines across Asia by the end of 2022. Besides the altruistic motivations of their cooperative effort, this was designed to counter China’s strategic efforts at enhancing its influence in Southeast Asia by supplying vaccines to various countries. One of the key goals of the Quad appears to be to integrate India into an informal alliance with the remaining three countries that already have a structured alliance in place. While Indo-Pacific is now a priority for India, its strategic community and decision-makers remain wary of becoming part of a formal alliance.

There is a considerable section of the Indian strategic and academic community that retains deep suspicions of the US – a legacy of the Cold War. This segment of the Indian commentariat was recently given considerable fodder by the Biden administration’s response to the second wave of the COVID crisis facing India. India desperately needed raw materials from the US to manufacture the Covishield vaccine. In response to requests from official and private channels like the major Indian vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of Pune, senior members of the Biden administration dithered. Key officials mouthed the Trump-era slogan of “America First” and cited the Defense Production Act to turn down the request, thereby causing considerable angst in India. Fortunately for the health of India-US ties, the Biden administration has since reversed its initial position and it has decided to not only facilitate the supply of raw materials for Covishield but also therapeutics, diagnostic test kits, ventilators and personal protective gear.

The revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal, nullified by the Trump administration, has also preoccupied the Biden administration during this period. However, Biden’s concern with opposition from Republican members of congress has precluded him from making much headway on this front. Thus far, Biden has unsuccessfully tried to extract concessions from Iran to mollify Republicans, who remain steadfastly opposed to any resumption of the JCPOA. However, it is unlikely that the Iranian regime will give in to Biden’s pressure tactics, having survived the Trump administration without giving any concessions.

Given that it was the US that abrogated the JCPOA, it would have been far more productive for Biden to make some “good faith” moves soon after assuming office. He made some minor concessions including the lifting of travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats to the United Nations in New York. These are likely to be insufficient. Even if Biden’s gambit were to succeed, at the moment it is difficult to visualize a scenario where congressional Republicans will acquiesce to a revival of the JCPOA.

Another possible confidence-building measure by the Biden administration could be to issue waivers to allow foreign companies to work with Iran’s civil nuclear programme. This has been suggested by Germany, France and Great Britain who have also stressed the need for the US to take the lead in offering some economic relief to Iran. Thus far, the Biden administration has been unwilling to take this approach. This could be primarily due to fears that any unilateral concessions would upset the delicate balance of power in Capitol Hill, thereby hurting key domestic policy priorities of the Biden administration.

The Biden administration’s goal of reviving the JCPOA has been made more difficult by the continued attacks on the US and allied personnel in Iraq. It is widely suspected that Iran-aligned groups are responsible for these attacks. The attack on Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan on February 15 was the deadliest of them all. It caused the death of a civilian contractor and injured nine other personnel. This prompted a retaliatory strike by the Biden administration on Iran-backed groups in Syria, where they are working to support the Bashar-al-Assad regime. The other incident detrimental to the revival of the JCPOA was the alleged attack by Israeli covert sources on the Natanz nuclear facility of Iran. Iran responded by raising its uranium enrichment to 60% more than 20 times the permissible limit.

President Biden has a history of opposing US troop presence in Afghanistan. He did not support the US troop surge ordered by President Obama in 2009. News reports indicate that President Biden has extended the original deadline of US troop withdrawal from May 1 to September 11 this year. This may seem like a minor violation of the terms of the deal the US government signed with the Taliban in February 2020. However, the Taliban do not see it this way and have rejected the planned extension and the accompanying peace plan.

A few weeks ago, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad delivered a draft peace agreement the central idea of which is the formation of a transitional government that would include the Taliban thereby replacing the current elected government headed by President Ashraf Ghani. However, the agreement is silent on two critical questions: One, the nature of power-sharing among the different warring factions and the control of the security forces.

In a letter to President Ghani, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken proposed a 90-day reduction in violence to create space for the finalization of the peace agreement. The Biden administration’s decision to carry through with an artificial withdrawal deadline is likely to trigger the collapse of the Ghani government. The Biden administration may be hoping that it will be able to engage the regional powers – Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and India – to agree on a peace plan. While India will be a significant player given the investments it has made in Afghanistan over the years, it lacks a working relationship with the Taliban. This will limit India’s influence as it lacks a working relationship with the Taliban. In contrast, a collapse of the peace process or a violent civil war that limits the influence of Kabul or a political settlement that gives the Taliban a share of power will increase Pakistan’s clout.

Finally, significant developments have taken place in the context of US-Russia relations. In the context of the recent build-up of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, Biden has taken a slew of measures targeting Russia for its alleged meddling in the US Presidential elections and launching cyber-attacks. These include new sanctions against Russia to penalize Moscow for its alleged meddling in US elections and cyber-attacks, a ban on US banks buying new Russian state debt, sanctions against 38 individuals and entities, and the expulsion of 10 diplomats. In a tit-for-tat move, Russia has decided to ban Russians and other non-Americans from working in the US missions, prevent US officials from making unlimited visits to Russia and sanctioning eight officials. Although US-Russia relations appear fraught at the moment, the positive reaction of the Russian foreign minister to the proposed summit meeting between President Biden and President Putin leaves a certain cause for optimism.

(The author is a former faculty at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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