After years of hostile relations between the U.S. and China under President Trump, the Biden administration got off to a rancorous start when Secretary of State Antony Blinken engaged in a very public and angry verbal exchange in his first meeting with top Chinese officials in Alaska on March 18. The U.S. ran down a list of grievances on trade, human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and among the Uighur Muslim minority in Western China, as well as rising tensions over Taiwan and China’s military expansion in the South China Sea.
China’s top ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi, countered by charging the U.S. with hypocrisy on human rights and its treatment of minorities, criticized U.S. foreign interventions, and accused U.S. officials of possessing a “cold war mentality.”
On March 17, when an ABC-TV news interviewer asked President Joe Biden if he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a killer, Biden said “I do,” and went on to pledge that Putin is “going to pay” for Russian interference in the 2020 election. The Kremlin responded by recalling its ambassador to Washington and warned of the possibility of an “irreversible deterioration of relations.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mel Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a former CIA intelligence analyst from 1966 to 1990. Here, he discusses his recent article, “Team Biden: Diplomatic and Strategic Failure,” which assesses President Biden’s current hardline approach to both Russia and China, and alternatives to a costly new cold war.
MEL GOODMAN: I would like to think that in taking a tough line with both Russia and China — which frankly makes no strategic sense whatsoever — but I’d like to think this is a classic case of the velvet hand and the iron glove that Biden again is just trying to show a domestic audience that “OK, well, maybe I’m a Democrat, but I can be as tough as a Republican and maybe show Putin and Xi Jinping that there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s not going to be what you encountered for the last four years.” I would hope that’s what’s going on.
And that we’ll see more conciliation and more diplomacy. But even after allowing for that, when I look at the appointments he made, and I agree with President Ronald Reagan, who said personnel is policy. So the people he selects — certainly this is true in domestic policy, because they’re quite progressive and they’re saying some very progressive things and supporting progressive ideas — but the people he’s selecting on the foreign policy side of the equation, are to me the old school types, what Barack Obama and his wonderful memoir refers to as the foreign policy blob who’ve been thinking the same way about issues for the past generation while we need to think differently.
But the idea of taking on China and Russia at the same time and frankly, in doing so, I think we’ve driven them into each other’s arms. And right now, I would say without question, that this is the closest Sino-Russian policy we’ve seen since the 1950s and the great falling out over nuclear weapons in the Cuban missile crisis that took a long time for the two sides to recover from. But now they are dealing economically. They’re dealing with politically.
China’s taking part in the military exercises in the Arctic with the Russians, the Russians have cooperated with the Chinese and exercises in East Asia. We haven’t seen this kind of cooperation even in the ’50s, there were limits on military cooperation, which was the undoing of the Sino-Soviet relationship in the first place. And what I find so ironic about this is when you look at international issues, we don’t have great disagreements with either country. There aren’t great geopolitical differences. Certainly, they don’t equal the similarities on arms control, on disarmament, on nuclear weapons, on Iran, both Russia and China signed the joint comprehensive plan of action — the Iran Nuclear Accord.
Both Russia and China are in favor of limiting the nuclear arsenal in North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s arsenal. Do all sides agree on doing something about international terrorism? China has been very supportive of the West, the United States and the Red Sea on this issue of piracy. In fact, the only real military facility they have outside of a Chinese zone of influence is in Jibuti where they can operate with her naval vessels. So there’s no good explanation for why we want to go after both of them in this way. And I think both sides, I see it in Putin and Xi Jinping, but in different ways — would like to get back to a more formal, more diplomatic relationship with the United States.
SCOTT HARRIS: The international crisis of climate change. In order for climate change to be effectively addressed on a global scale, you need to have cooperation, especially among the largest economies. Tell us a little bit about your vision for how the United States, Russia and China could come together to more effectively take on climate change.
MEL GOODMAN: Well, I think it was excellent in the first week that Biden’s promise went back into the Paris accord. But that’s not enough. I think Biden has to take a page out of Obama’s book when Obama conducted very intense, personal diplomacy with China to bring them into the Paris accord. And that’s just one more reason why we need to deal with the other major polluter. When you think of greenhouse gases, you think of China and the United States. If they can’t come to an agreement, there’s not going to be an international agreement that’s going to be effective. And what’s interesting to me is when you read the documents that come out of the Pentagon in terms of American national security and the challenges to national security and the threats to national security — climate is the number one foreign policy, national security problem as the Pentagon sees it.
And again, four years — the Trump years — four years have been lost in this fight. So we’re falling behind at an alarming rate. And I would add to the climate problem, the other basic international problem is the pandemic. The importance of an international organization like the World Health Organization, the importance of Sino-American conversation and cooperation in dealing with the pandemic.
And here’s where China also stole a march on us. We’re hoarding vaccine. They’re giving it away. At least 50 countries have gotten free supplies of COVID-19 vaccine. But we used it to get Mexico’s help on the border. We’re using it as a kind of coercive weapon and that’s not going to get them the solution to the problem that we need.
For more information visit Melvin Goodman’s Website at melvingoodman.com, Center for International Policy at internationalpolicy.org, and Mel Goodman’s CIP website at internationalpolicy.org/