Containment and isolation: Biden's diplomatic action towards China

(To Giorgio Grosso)

"America is back". This is the slogan of Joe Biden's journey. The US president chose Europe for his first diplomatic trip abroad, first meeting his G7 counterparts, then NATO and EU leaders, and finally Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Biden's stated goal for his trip to Europe is to strengthen the Atlantic axis, re-establish the leading role of the Western world for Washington and rebuild the confidence of European partners after the Trump administration, more protectionist and less inclined to pursue a multilateral policy based on international organizations.

This "return of diplomacy" was a staple of the entire 2020 election campaign and took the form of a real diplomatic encirclement maneuver towards China, particularly during the G7 held in Cornwall.

Despite former President Donald Trump accusing Biden of wanting to "sell off the country to China" by softening the line towards Beijing, the new president has acted in continuity with his predecessor, taking even tougher positions than Trump. Already in January 2021 Anthony Blinken, appointed secretary of state, declared that the one with China would be the main challenge for the United States, agreeing with the choice of a more muscular posture made by the previous administrationi. Further confirmation also came with the inauguration ceremony, which was attended by Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's representative in the United States.

It was the first time since 1979 that an official representative of the Taiwanese government had officially attended the event, since the United States recognizes the Beijing government as the only legitimate Chinese government and not that of Taipei, endorsing the "one China policy". It is the necessary prerequisite for the establishment and maintenance of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.

As expected, the Beijing government immediately protested the choice of the new administration, stressing that it violates the principle of "one China". In Taipei, the news was obviously greeted with a sigh of relief, as it denied the risk of a Biden administration compliant with Beijing and therefore less supportive of Taipei.

Another element is the push from the new administration to further investigate the origin of the new coronavirus that caused the pandemic. The thesis of the virus's artificial origin, based on the possibility that the pathogen escaped from the virology laboratories in Wuhan, has been rejected several times by the World Health Organization and other experts. Biden, however, seems willing to investigate the issue further, especially to have another political lever against Beijing and strengthen the encirclement and international political pressure around China.

A point on which strong pressure was expected from the new democratic administration is the question of respect for human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

The new president immediately brought the attention of the world chancelleries to what is happening in Xinjiang, where according to Washington there are regular violations of human rights against local minorities, in particular the Uyghur one. The latter would be forced into re-education camps where psychological and social pressures would take place, as well as forced labor and torture, to bend and repress the autonomist movements in the region.

Beijing largely denies the allegations, arguing that only an Islamic extremist terrorist prevention work is taking place in Xinjiang. The Hong Kong dossier is brought to international prominence to the same extent, especially following the approval of special laws that allow the extradition of citizens of the Special Administrative Region guilty of committing crimes against the central government of Beijing. In fact, from the point of view of the Chinese government it is a preparatory move in view of the abandonment of the “one country, two systems” model on which the return of the former British colony to the Chinese motherland was based.

For Washington, this simply represents the suppression of the legitimate demands for democracy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong. For both issues, Beijing responds with the request not to interfere in the country's internal affairs, a practice in which China requires symmetry and which has been at the center of Chinese diplomatic action since the foundation of the People's Republic.

Biden's trip to Europe only confirms and underlines Washington's muscular posture towards Beijing. His intention to contain the rise of the People's Republic of China must take place, unlike what Trump did, through a containment that involves not only the nations that are part of the Quad (Australia, Japan, India and the United States themselves), geostrategically close to the scenario, but also the European allies.

China was, by will of the US, at the center of the discussions in Cornwall: Biden literally called together the G7 partners to organize a common response to the challenge posed by China, also emphasizing ideological differences with a narrative centered on democracies that defend the world order from the risks of autocracies: a clear message not only for Russia, but above all for Chinaii. The idea of ​​B7W was also born within the G3, an infrastructure and financing project aimed at low-middle-income countries, essentially designed to counterbalance the Chinese economic-financial expansion in the developing countries of Asia and the 'Africa.

Following these statements, China raised its alert level, officially protesting the aggressive tones of the Cornish summit and accusing the United States of political manipulation of European countries, with which China talks and trades in relative serenity.

Despite the great US enthusiasm, the response of European countries to the anti-Chinese call to gather has in fact tended to be cold: countries like Germany and France have their own national interests (especially economic ones in the case of Germany) that do not intend to sacrifice on the altar of Atlantic axis, maintaining a cautious attitude but still willing to cooperate and dialogue with Beijing.

The Italian position is more complicated: in 2018 the then Minister of Economic Development Luigi di Maio (in the photo, the one on the right) and the president of the national development and reform commission He Lifeng jointly signed the Memorandum of Understanding on program investments "One Belt, One Road", which foresees, among other things, the inclusion of Italy, specifically of some of its ports, within the infrastructure investment network promoted by Beijing.

Following the G7 summit, the current prime minister Mario Draghi announced his intention to review these agreements, underlining Italy's adamant positioning within the Atlantic axis.iii. It is good to remember that the agreement, as a memorandum of understanding, from the point of view of international law it does not bind the parties in any way and has more political than legal significance.

Biden's diplomatic operation continued with the NATO summit in Brussels. Unlike his predecessor, the new White House tenant stressed the importance of NATO, adding that the time has come for the alliance to shift its focus and efforts to the "systemic" threat posed by China, as well as to continue to monitor the Russian "military" threat.

Biden said the Atlantic Treaty constraints are still considered "sacred" by the United States, adding that Russia and China are making every effort to undermine the architecture of the alliance to their advantage.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, also pointed out that "China does not share our values", but also added that it is not the time for a new Cold War with China, which while representing a challenge is not yet an enemyiv. He also added that all countries will have to collaborate more in the alliance budget, especially in view of the greater effort required in the cyber and space sectors, where China is investing significant amounts.

While these statements have an important specific weight, it is difficult to say that Biden has already achieved his goals. Recalibrating NATO by placing Beijing in its sights is a move that, from Washington's point of view, allows for the revitalization of a central element of US foreign policy that in the last decade seemed to have become more of a problem than an advantage, especially for expenses. largely supported by the United States.

NATO can become in the long run an asset for the United States against China, but the process will necessarily have to be based on voluntary cooperation of the member countries, which at present is not so obvious. Furthermore, Article 5, which requires all Member States to intervene immediately in the event of an attack, limits its effectiveness only to the geographical area of ​​the North Atlantic and Europe. This suggests that, in the event of serious military conflicts between Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea, the Treaty would not be immediately activated, leaving room for discretion to the NATO countries.

Even from a budget point of view, it is difficult for European countries to commit more resources in the near future: the reconstruction of European economies following the economic problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is at the center of the continental agenda and the containment of China is not it represents a strong enough stimulus to persuade European countries to subtract resources from the primary objective.

The meeting with Putin was another central event in Biden's diplomatic action towards China. Although the two underlined the respective differences on different dossiers, an agreement was reached for the restoration of normal diplomatic activity, giving the feeling that a small rapprochement is taking place between the two countries. In Biden's action, this move could be an attempt to create a possible bank in Moscow in an anti-Chinese key, to the detriment of the possible axis between Russia and China.

This possibility would open a scenario similar to the "ping pong diplomacy" of the XNUMXs, but with reversed parts: the then president Nixon decided to open official diplomatic channels with the People's Republic of China to break the unity of the communist bloc.

In reality today there are no animosities that characterized the relationship between China and the USSR at the time and it is likely that Moscow and Beijing will continue in their dialogue: despite being more a commonality of purpose than a real axis, the two countries dialogue and collaborate on several fronts, but without excessive institutionalization. This flexibility could allow Russia and China to handle any pressure from Washington.

In conclusion, Biden's diplomatic action is an attempt to gather as many allies as possible in the challenge with Beijing, in order to put further pressure on China in a deterrent key, preventing the latter from pursuing what in Washington's eyes is a policy aggressive foreign, aimed at modifying it status quo especially in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, it is precisely this approach that could stimulate an excessive resurgence in the aggressiveness of the Chinese government.

From the Chinese point of view it is easy to notice the inconsistencies of the proclamations of Washington, which has set up a narrative based on respect for the rule of law international and human rights despite having a not flawless conduct on these fronts. As pointed out by General Fabio Mini, “It is difficult for the Chinese to accept US requests regarding the South China Sea when it is they who have not signed the Montego Bay agreements, which represent the center of international legislation on the matter. We cannot expect the respect of rules to which in the first place we did not want to adapt in order to have greater political discretion, preferring instead to rely on the weight of our own military maritime power factors. " On the issue of human rights, China has often pointed out how the events that gave birth to the movement Black Lives Matter, together with the pockets of poverty and social hardship present in the country, are proof that respect for human rights is not a subject in which the United States can afford to give lessons.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, European states are unlikely to fully conform to Washington's line, at least in the short term. Economic interdependence between Europe and China is quite an important factor in avoiding the possibilities of actions that go beyond formal protests and mere condemnations of human rights violations.

Another aspect that the United States probably underestimates is its traditional strategic setting, based on the technological dominance of the battlefield. In this dimension of combat, the United States certainly retains a great advantage, but the Chinese strategic choices could hide hidden pitfalls even to the very advanced US reconnaissance systems.

Chinese military science is mainly based on Marxist-Leninist materialism, and therefore largely on Clausewitz, but it is also true that both Chinese history and philosophical tradition represent an intellectual heritage that has been in the process of being rediscovered for years. of the Chinese elites. Mao himself was a great connoisseur of Chinese classics and this aspect clearly emerges from his writings. As indicated by the sinologist Adriano Madaro, “The Americans have no idea how the Chinese would fight. The military thought of Mao Zedong is still under study and presents various solutions that China could decide to adopt, should an armed confrontation occur. China would probably be ready to defend itself by luring the opponent deep into the Asian continent, and then encircling him. It could be an extreme solution, with high human costs, which would change US operational strategies currently focused on a possible conflict centered on the Pacific Ocean ".

The hypothesis of a real confrontation is still a long way off, but the current political choices of the Biden administration could trigger a negative spiral that would be difficult to reverse. China's rise is undoubtedly the great challenge of the XNUMXst century, but at present it is still manageable in competitive terms, reaping the rewards of cooperation where possible.

The pragmatism of the Chinese ruling class is a factor that allows for dialogue even in the presence of different systemic views, as evidenced by the relations between Beijing and Taipei. The two governments are poles apart when it comes to national goals, but they are willing to work together when an agreement promises benefits for both.

An open conflict with China would therefore be devastating and costly for all sides, but it can still be avoided unless the US-led West decides otherwise.


Photo: The White House / Xinhua / Twitter / ANSA / NATO