If there is one constant theme emerging from President Biden’s first foreign trip, it is this: China first.
No, not “China first” in the Trumpian sense, but in the sense that Biden is focused first on what the world can do together to contain China, even over questions about what America can gain from meetings of G-7 and NATO leaders. In other words, before there is any other topic of conversation, like the Middle East or climate change, the biggest discussion needs to be, according to Biden, about China first.
From the G-7 summit last week to the NATO conference this week, the forceful statements of cooperation to oppose China have made big headlines.
Indeed, where the Trump years were spent working to dismantle international organizations in favor of more nationalist approaches, Biden has been building up these organizations around the single organizing principle of opposing China.
A joint statement from the G-7 urged China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms” particularly as it relates to Xinjiang province, where the Chinese government has been accused of committing genocide against a minority Muslim population, and Hong Kong, where massive prodemocracy protests sparked crackdowns.
And where NATO conferences used to be about the Soviet Union in the Cold War era and later Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks, Biden pushed the conference to now discuss China at length, noting at a press conference Monday that the country was not even mentioned the last time NATO put together a strategic plan in 2010. A statement after the NATO conference had the nations in Europe declare that China was a “security risk” — its boldest statement ever against the communist regime.
The context here is obvious for both the United States and the world. China is playing a long-term game to become the dominant nation on Earth, allowing it to influence norms for how those on the planet live and are governed.
Estimates are that by sometime around 2030, China is on track to overtake America as the largest economy in the world. However, America will still dominate the world when it comes to military power and the so-called “soft power” of friendships and exported culture. The decision to donate 500 million COVID vaccine doses, for example, plays right into the goal of asserting soft power over other nations that don’t have access.
Still, under President Xi Jinping, China went from a country that was quietly building its economy and creating trade partnerships to one that has aggressively tried to expand its influence in the South China Sea and build up its Navy in particular.
In addition to that, China has spent the last decade investing in Africa, seeing the continent not only as a resource-rich area but also the home of 54 counties, which could create a large voting block in institutions like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations should they align with Chinese interests.
And then there is the increasingly warm relationship between Russia and China, which are now holding joint military exercises together, catching the eye of the NATO Alliance.
Yes, there has been a lot of public shadowboxing this week between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the point where one could assume their upcoming meeting is the marquee event of Biden’s trip. There are headlines about how the relationship between the countries is at the lowest point that it has been since the Cold War.
But the reality is that much of this discussion is just for domestic consumption in both countries (both leaders want to act like the tough guy with the other). The real game is how badly Russia needs China, and whether there is any opportunity for the United States to break up that alliance, or at least weaken it to a degree.
Biden and Putin don’t seem interested in repairing any relations between their countries. But if Biden can create any cracks between Russia and China, all while refocusing G-7 and NATO attention toward the threats from Beijing, it will be a huge achievement. Because, again, above even a high-level meeting between Biden and Putin this week, Biden’s trip is first about China.