Biden’s Europe Visit and the Dragon in the Room

Dr. Monish Tourangbam
26th June 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

As President Biden wrapped up his consequential foreign tour culminating in the G7 and NATO summits, his meetings with EU leaders and with President Vladimir Putin, no other issue seemed as paramount as the China challenge. Breaking new grounds, America’s transatlantic allies sounded the China alarm, although a consensual voice has yet to emerge on how to tackle the threat of an aggressive China. There is a greater clarity that the aggressive turn in China’s rise reaching a peak during the pandemic, is the most preeminent threat to a rules based international order. China’s military adventurism across the Indo-Pacific waters, at the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC), and its intransigent behaviour over any criticism relating to its callous handling of the pandemic outbreak has accentuated concerns. 

President Biden during his official European tour categorically called out for a more concerted effort to deal with the China challenge.  Besides, for long, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has often been accused of indulging in predatory economics, making a number of developing countries beholden to China, through a debt trap diplomacy. Therefore, a major running theme of discussion among the G7 countries was the imperative to rally around “building back better” and promising a transparent and consultative infrastructure plan, that could prove an alternative to BRI. Such a multilateral plan has found wide support among the most powerful democracies of the world. It is not surprising that such a plan formed the subject of a rather vitriolic editorial at the Global Times, which questioned America’s ability to form a “united front” against China, and expressed scepticism about the practicality and feasibility of such an infrastructure plan. 

As policymakers and scholars around the world, debate and deliberate on the shape of things to come in a post-pandemic world order, the threat from a rising China to global peace and stability has become more apparent. That China’s behaviour in the regional and global scheme of things, needs to be regulated towards the pursuit of a rules based order, is understood by one and all. However, each country’s intention and ability to practice autonomy in their China policies will produce a number of permutations and combinations. Which country, to what extent, is willing to break bridges with the second largest economy in the world, will be the moot point as the United States tries to restore its leadership on global and regional governance. 

China remains a prominent factor while crafting American policy on issue areas ranging from military partnerships to fashioning a multilateral way of combating climate change. In the United States, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus, and continuity from the Trump to the Biden administration on the imminent threat perceived from a rising China to US leadership at the global stage. The United States will have the difficult task of pulling together the major democracies and economies of the world, to join forces in managing, for instance, the governance of new technologies, to counteract China’s ability to take lead and set the agenda on such matters, to its own favour. While a China led political and economic system seems unpalatable to a number of countries, preventing such an undesirable situation will take immense negotiating skill among the policymaking core of a number of countries to align interest and implementation. 

What sets apart Biden’s foreign policy approach from that of Trump’s is a renewed emphasis on taking along America’s allies in efforts to create a robust deterrence against China, as opposed to Trump’s disdain for multilateralism, and for America’s alliance framework. America’s preoccupation with the global war on terror in Afghanistan, and the misadventure in Iraq distracted the United States, creating the space in which China grew into the military and economic power that is today. Moreover, the financial crisis that struck the United States in 2008, dealt a severe blow to its standing as a global economic power, and further provided impetus to the China growth story. With the onset of the Xi Jinping era, China has been more unapologetic in its hegemonic ambitions, and set aside its hide and bide strategy. 

Even as the United States sets about reorienting strategic focus towards the Indo-Pacific region, China’s attitude towards the rules based global order has been one of disregard and contempt. China’s increasing influence over multilateral institutions over the years, and its budding strategic alliance with Russia has become a concern for the United States. The Biden administration intends to ‘restore America’ and bring back American leadership at the global stage, after four years of the disruptive Trump presidency. However, setting the American political and economic house in order, and aligning its China policy, with that of its allies and other like-minded partners will remain a test and a defining feature of Biden’s foreign policy legacy. 

*The author is a Senior Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, MAHE and the Honorary Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author