Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, a nineteenth century Prussian military commander has an adage that is attributed to him: “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. While this was indeed a more laconic version of a more nuanced quote related to war situations, in this form it is equally appropriate for a wide range of occasions in life including politics and diplomacy. Just as this would also be applicable to the strategic approach to global re-engagement by the new Biden Administration in Washington.
President Joe Biden wanted to do things in a very different way from his erratic predecessor President Donald Trump. While Trump disregarded allies, Biden sought to engage them. While Trump neglected Multilateral institutions, Biden joined their efforts. While Trump withdrew from the Climate Change Agreement, Biden underscored America’s commitment to it. However, all this might not amount to too much of a difference because of one factor. It is Biden’s anti-China posture. If he subordinates all his other initiatives to this prime foreign policy objective of taking China on as directly as it looks likely, much of the other changes may come a cropper.
Upon taking office, the Biden team expended considerable energies in rallying allies and friends. In the west, the European Union was in focus. The Europeans, while critical of China on the issue of “values” (or lack of them), and even going so far as to impose sanctions on Beijing on this score, were reluctant to go the whole hog and become part of any security cooperation which might unfavorably impact on their trade relations with China. So, there Biden already faced a modicum of pushback. In the east he was able to reinvigorate the concept of “Quad”, along with Australia, Japan and India, giving it a security content. But pretty much the rest of South East Asia, which emphasizes the centrality of ASEAN (that could be marginalized by the “Quad”), and non-Indian South Asia were extremely of wary taking sides with respect to the two great powers. The economic penetration of China into that region was simply too great. At the same time, they were also much too integrated with the American ethos.
Such US activities also gave China umbrage. China’s goal was to reach America’s peer status and then negotiate a new type of big power relationship with it. It was on the cusp of becoming powerful enough not to accept anything short of that. Having done the legwork in garnering the support of allies in East Asia, representatives of the US met their Chinese counterparts in Alaska. The US side, Secretary pf State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan literally confronted their Chinese interlocutors, Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and read the latter the riot act. The Chinese replied in kind. To them American criticism was no more than pot calling the kettle black: consequently, they seemed to take no note of it. The Chinese also accused the Americans of inadequate diplomatic protocol, stung to the quick perhaps by the lack of niceties. The Chinese, like most Asians, will sooner forgive an injury than an insult.
Almost simultaneously, US-Russian relations took a nose-dive. The Russians were unhappy, for starters, over US attempts to wean Germany away from the Russo-German Nordstream-2 gas-pipeline project. Then, almost incredibly, at an interview Biden called President Vladimir Putin a “killer”. Incandescent with rage, the Russians recalled their Ambassador from Washington (albeit, temporarily) for consultations. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to China to strengthen and deepen bilateral ties. A Sino-Russian entente seemed on the cards,
The deterioration of the Sino-American relations put paid the possibility of Chinese cooperation in other spheres. Two such were on the global political horizon. They related to North Korea and Iran. As the relations between China and the US soured, and America tried to buttress its Japanese and South Korean alliance, the North Koreans reacted very sharply both in words and action. Their Leader, Kim Jong-un spoke through his younger sister who asked America to keep its ‘’stink “” on its side of the Ocean. Thereafter to back up the verbal diatribe, and to stress the point, Pyongyong test- fired missiles, both cruise and ballistic. Kim Jong-un turned to China for reassurance, and obtained it when the Chinese President Xi Jinping described their bilateral relations as “common treasure”. The US would have needed China’s support for dealing with Kim. It is now unlikely to be forthcoming, except on China’s terms.
With regard to Iran, Biden’s plans were top reduce tensions. He wanted to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the “’Nuclear Deal”” whereby Iran had pledged to forego nuclear ambitions in return for a set of actions that included lifting of sanctions on America’s part. Trump had actually withdrawn from the deal alleging Iran’s regional “bad behavior””. In retaliation Iran had immediately begun enriching uranium, which went against treaty terms. Apart from the US and Iran, the nations involved were China, France, Germany, the UK and Russia. These countries were unhappy with Trump’s withdrawal, and supportive of Biden’s call for renegotiation. It seemed to have got stuck on who makes the first move, Iran or the US. Ultimately Iran did. But it was not by obliging the US by meeting any of its demands. It was by signing up a 25- year Cooperative Agreement with America’s arch- rival, China.
This Agreement sealed what was the culmination of growing ties between Iran and China. The details are not yet fully public. However, it is believed that these indicate massive Chinese investments in Iran’s infrastructure, as well as in industrial and petrochemical sectors. There would also be military and intelligence sharing shoring up Iran’s defence capabilities. In return Iran would provide China a continued flow of much-needed oil to feed Chinas energy-hungry economy. Most importantly, Iran will be linked up with China’s multitrillion dollar Road and Belt Initiative, the mega infrastructural plan to link Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Sino-Iranian agreement will bring China directly into the complex politics of the Middle East, where Turkey is also becoming a potential partner, both to Iran and China. So, it looks as if the initial plans of the Biden foreign policy team to persuade friends and allies to confront China in a bid to prevent its rise, will require to be redrawn, as China, too, marshals its foreign ties.
Biden has more experience of foreign policy than most leaders, past and present, in Washington. In one of philosophies most famous apologues, Plato’s “allegory of the cave”, a group of men, chained to one another, are quite happy to learn about the outside world from shadows on cave walls. When they are able to emerge into the open, they are dazzled by the glaring sunlight, an allegory for exposure to the knowledge of “real things” apart from mere “shadowy reflections”. Biden’s foreign policy team runs the risk of being similarly overwhelmed by the realities of world politics if it remains bent on pursuing preconceived notions. One of these being the woes of the world are owed to China, and the “democracies”, mostly from the west, must be united in challenge to that rising Asian entity. It is also predicated on the belief that one set of values is superior to another. The truth, however, is that there are no saints in the international system. Unless that realization dawns on current Americans in office, Donald Trump may continue to remain the only President in recent American history not to start a war.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg