US President Joe Biden is entering his second week in office with a lot on his plate.
Among the most pressing issues are plans to produce and distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in the US, economic rescue proposals to support tens of millions of Americans during a difficult time, and the issuing of dozens of executive orders to reverse many of former president Donald Trump’s policies, especially regarding immigration, borders and travel constraints.
But there are also other issues competing to get Biden’s attention, among them foreign policy issues.
Biden has already been faced with his first foreign policy challenge related to Russia and China. His administration has called for the immediate release of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and more than 2,000 of his supporters detained after attending rallies in some of the largest nationwide protests in Russia in years.
In a statement that signalled a more confrontational stance towards Moscow from Washington, the US State Department condemned the “harsh tactics” used by the Russian authorities against the protesters and journalists at the weekend.
“We call on the Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksei Navalny,” it said.
“The United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defence of human rights, whether in Russia or wherever else they come under threat.”
Navalny, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was jailed last week upon his return from Germany where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt he says was ordered by the Kremlin. He called on his supporters to hold rallies demanding his release.
The White House said Biden had instructed Avril Haines, US director of national intelligence, to probe Moscow’s “use of chemical weapons” against Navalny in connection with the assassination attempt. Even before Biden took office, Jake Sullivan, the new US national security adviser, said the Russian crackdown on protesters was a violation of human rights and an “affront” to the Russian people.
Yet, despite the tensions, the Biden administration will not want to burn all the bridges with Russia. There are other crises that cannot be resolved unless Russia cooperates with the US, including the conflicts in Syria and Libya.
All eyes will be on contacts between Biden and Putin, in which Biden will need to walk a fine line as he seeks to toughen his administration’s stance on Russia while preserving room for diplomacy in a post-Trump era.
Biden has not held out hopes for a “reset” in US relations with Russia, but he has indicated that he wants to manage differences with the former cold war foe without necessarily resolving them or improving ties. With an already heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not something Biden seeks.
When he first speaks with Putin before the end of this week, Biden is expected to call Putin out for the arrest of Navalny and the crackdown on the Russian opposition, express concerns about cybersecurity and press allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Biden must be mindful of his own proposal to extend for five years the last remaining US-Russia arms control treaty that is due to expire in February. On Monday, Biden told reporters that he had not yet decided how to respond to the Navalny situation but expressed hopes that the US and Russia could cooperate in areas where both see benefits.
“I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries on a New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behaviour, whether it’s Navalny… or reports of bounties on the heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Biden said.
Biden has already ordered the US intelligence community to launch reviews of each of those issues, according to the White House, which on Friday said the US proposal to extend the New START would be accompanied by reckonings on the other matters.
The approach has met with approval from some former US diplomats who have dealt with Russia and are looking forward to seeing how Biden’s team, including Sullivan and his nominee as number three at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, sets out the contours of Russian policy.
TOUGH ON CHINA: Biden has signalled that he will maintain a tougher stance on China, and last week the US urged China to stop intimidating Taiwan after Chinese jets flew into the country’s air-defence zone in the second warning to Beijing since Biden became US president.
“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” the State Department said.
The warning came days after the presidential inauguration, which was attended by Hsiao Bi-Khim, Taiwan’s representative in the US. The invitation marked the first time that a de facto Taiwanese ambassador to Washington had attended an American presidential inauguration.
Haines said Washington needed to take a harsher stance towards China, and new Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he disagreed with the way Trump had implemented his hawkish China policy but that the former president “was right in taking a tougher approach”.
It seems the US-China trade war is not going away under Biden, but he might not confront Beijing right away because he wants to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic and the state of the US economy. Even so, he looks set to renew the pressures over trade and technology grievances that prompted Trump to hike tariffs on Chinese imports in 2017.
Negotiators might tone down Trump’s focus on narrowing China’s multibillion-dollar trade surplus with the US and push harder to open its state-dominated economy. Biden is evaluating the US tariffs on Chinese goods and wants to coordinate future steps with allies, White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday.
“The president is committed to stopping China’s economic abuses,” Psaki said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian appealed to Washington to learn from Trump’s “erroneous policies” and adopt a “constructive attitude” but gave no indication of possible changes by Beijing.
“Cooperation is the only correct choice for both sides,” Zhao said on Tuesday.
In the same way that Biden will be walking a fine line in his contacts with Putin, he will also be walking on a high wire with Chinese President Xi Jinping when they talk together.
China faces more opposition than ever in Washington due to its trade record, territorial disputes with neighbours, crackdown on Hong Kong, reports of abuses against ethnic Muslims and accusations of technology theft and spying.
Katherine Tai, Biden’s choice to succeed former US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, sounded a hawkish note on China in a speech this month. “We face stiffening competition from a growing and ambitious China,” Tai said. “A China whose economy is directed by central planners who are not subject to the pressures of political pluralism, democratic elections or popular opinion.”
After more than two years and 13 rounds of talks, negotiators have yet to tackle one of the biggest irritants for China’s trading partners – the status of politically favoured Chinese state companies that dominate industries from banking to oil to telecoms.
Europe, Japan and other countries earlier criticised Trump’s tactics against China but also echoed complaints that Beijing steals technology and breaks promises to open markets by subsidising and shielding companies from competition.
OTHER CHALLENGES: Another challenge for Biden is Iran. The Iranians are eager to restore the nuclear deal with Iran, and they warned Biden on Tuesday that there would not be an indefinite period before a decision was needed on the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran said it expected Washington to lift the crippling economic sanctions that Trump imposed on the country after pulling America out of the nuclear deal in 2018 as part of what he called “maximum pressure” against Iran.
The remarks by Iran’s Cabinet Spokesman Ali Rabiei are part of the pressure that Tehran is trying to exert on the US as it seeks to get the Biden administration to quickly return to the deal.
Though Biden has pledged to return to the deal, Rabiei said there had yet to be communication between Iran and Biden on the subject. “The US will not have all the time in the world,” Rabiei said. “We are waiting for the official announcement of their stance as well as the lifting of sanctions.”
In the meantime, Iran would take a further step away from the nuclear deal by imposing “restrictions” on inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog in late February, he said.
The challenges posed by China, Russia, Iran and other global crises cannot be addressed by the US alone, and reviving the transatlantic alliance is also vital for the US, Biden said in his first days in office.
In a series of calls with some of America’s closest allies, Biden talked up transatlantic ties and the need for multilateral cooperation. During a call between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden, the two men discussed policies towards China, Iran and Russia, among other issues.
According to an account released by the White House, Biden “conveyed his intention to strengthen the special relationship between our countries and revitalise transatlantic ties,” citing the “critical role of NATO.” Biden also “noted the importance of co-operation, including through multilateral organisations, on shared challenges such as combatting climate change, containing Covid-19 and ensuring global health and security” – a turn away from Washington’s unilateral approach to global problems under Trump.
Biden also talked about working with Johnson at the G7 and UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) being hosted by the UK in June and November this year.
In Biden’s first call with German chancellor Angela Merkel, both agreed that international cooperation was vital to tackling global challenges like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Merkel welcomed Biden’s returning the US to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Paris Climate Agreement.
The two leaders also spoke about foreign policy issues like Afghanistan and Iran, along with trade and climate policy.
The same message of cooperation was echoed in a call between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, when Biden expressed his desire to strengthen bilateral ties, the White House said.
Biden had emphasised his commitment to bolstering transatlantic relations through NATO and the US partnership with the European Union, it added.
The two leaders also agreed on the need for close coordination, including through multilateral organisations, in tackling common challenges such as climate change, Covid-19 and the global economic recovery, the statement said.
They also agreed to work together on shared foreign policy priorities, including China, the Middle East, Russia and West Africa’s Sahel region.
Despite the weight of his domestic agenda, Biden seems very much aware of the relationship between a strong America abroad and a strong America domestically.
The new administration looks at global challenges like China, Russia and Iran, climate change, Covid-19, and the global economic slowdown and realises that America cannot do things alone.
It needs the strength of its partners, and the transatlantic alliance is the greatest American asset abroad.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.