The Biden Presidency and China: past, present, and future danger

Nov 17, 2020

The global sigh of relief that marked the end of the Trump era is hardly surprising. But Biden’s ascendancy warrants scrutiny, especially when we look at US-Sino relations and the potential for regional and global conflict.

Our region is in a very precarious position. Relations with China have never been worse, and Biden’s election offers little comfort. The present and the future look to be just as dangerous as the immediate past. How have our political leaders responded to the changing of the guard in Washington? Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese appear to be in competition as to who can be the most effusive in singing the praises of the new commander-in-chief.

The script needed little rehearsing. It is a familiar performance. Variations on a theme of ‘the USA has no firmer ally than Australia’ were trotted out. Our prime minister was quick to remind us all that “the president-elect has been a great friend of Australia over many years, including when he visited Australia in 2016” and that “American leadership is indispensable” for the world’s “many challenges … ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region … upholding the rules, norms and standards of our international community.” These are rules that decree that the US remains the dominant player in the region and that Australia will remain eternally loyal to the power of the United States.

Morrison was quick to invite Biden to Australia for next year’s 70th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty. The treaty was signed at the height of the Korean War. Australia has sent troops to every US military adventure since the signing of that treaty. Our leaders clearly don’t want things to change any time soon. But while Morrison was pledging fealty to the in-coming president, he still found time to acknowledge the significant anti-China role played by Trump and his team. At a press conference, the PM was asked about the Trump legacy in the region. Morrison identified the importance of re-establishing the ‘Quad’ group that unites the US, Japan, India and Australia in a military bloc aimed at China as being number one.

Much has been made by Australian political leaders of Biden’s 2016 visit to Australia. These were the years of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, which was designed to confront and challenge China. Biden bluntly pointed out that nothing was about to stop the US maintaining economic and military dominance in the region.

It might be worth recalling his words during that visit. “Anyone who questions America’s dedication and staying power in the Asia Pacific is not paying attention … and we’ve committed to put over 60 per cent of our fleet and our most advanced military capabilities in the Pacific by 2020.” Referring to Obama, he said: “As the president said, we are all in. We are not going anywhere.” It was a speech that clearly targeted China but also served to remind those nations in the region that just possibly needed to be reminded about who calls the shots. In the same speech, Biden declared: “If I had to bet on which country is going to lead economically in the 21st century… I’d bet on the United States. But I’d put it another way: It’s never a good bet to bet against the United States.”

All players in the region took careful note of that speech and of American foreign policy intentions during the Obama-Biden years. China reacted. It began a rapid military expansion, began building the contentious artificial islands, and became ‘assertive’ in the region. This has led to further reactions and responses from the USA and its allies.

We have witnessed a spectacular slide into an abyss of anti-China rhetoric and political action in Australia. The economic relationship between Australia and China is looking shaky. Police raids on political figures accused of supposed ‘foreign interference’ on behalf of China, and the tabling in Parliament of proposed legislation, supported by Labor, allowing government to ban universities, state and local governments from making trade or exchange agreements with Chinese institutions, alongside the daily anti-Chinese barrage from our political elites, has fuelled the fires of animosity.

The significance of the US for Australia cannot be overstated. The fact remains that it is by far the largest source of foreign investment in Australia. It is also a fact that it is in historic decline. Global superpowers don’t much care for decline. Biden’s 2016 speech was unequivocal that the US would maintain its hegemony by seeking to ‘contain’ China, even to the point of war.

That speech was made four years ago. Since then we have had Trump. Nothing really changed. On the very day that Americans went to the polls to remove Trump, the US ambassador to Australia spoke of a ‘bipartisan’ approach in the US regarding China. The ambassador spoke confidently about the strength of the alliance between the US and Australia. He made the comment that it would “remain strong and vibrant” and that “the alliance never sleeps”.

Trump is soon to become a fading, if grotesque, memory. The wheel has turned full circle. Biden offers no hope for peace, stability or calm in the region. The alliance and particularly US ambitions in the region will not change. The dangerous past becomes an even more dangerous future.

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