US President Joe Biden has hit the ground running. In his first two days in office, he signed 17 executive orders—more than any previous US president over the same period. He rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement and showed resolve in using US military power to support security in the South China Sea, in the Middle East and around Taiwan.
Biden also used his early calls to other world leaders and the virtual G7 summit to demonstrate the return of the US as an engaged, constructive ally and partner.
But, as always with any plan, others get a say in what happens and, as former UK prime minister Harold MacMillan observed, plans change because of something simple and inevitable: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’
Biden’s early actions haven’t all been about security and leadership engagement, though. He has also moved rapidly on pressing issues like the pandemic, speeding up the US Covid-19 vaccination program and committing US$4 billion to the international effort through the COVAX Facility. To get Americans back to work as vaccinations roll out, he’s pushing a well-targeted US$1.9 trillion stimulus package and reinvesting in modern, sustainable infrastructure.
As active as he’s been, Biden has had it easy so far. He and his close team of experienced policymakers and advisers prepared well for office and have drawn on that preparation to roll out decisions and initiatives.
There will be more pre-planned moves in the remaining two-thirds of the first 100 days, but, like a chess game, it gets harder from here as he and his administration go from the set-piece moves to the broken play of actually governing the US and navigating the global environment.
That’s no doubt well understood by folks like Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and others in the foreign policy and national security team.
Already, the coup in Myanmar and Iran’s nuclear program have crowded their way onto Biden’s desk. Myanmar is providing an early test of how the new administration’s rhetoric about the centrality of human rights and freedoms at home and abroad will feature in the use of US power and influence.
Iran and Myanmar are serious policy challenges; however, the core challenge for the Biden team is already very clear—Xi Jinping’s China. And if Biden pre-planned his opening moves, so did Xi.
Xi didn’t wait to let Biden settle into the Oval Office. As head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, he sent some dozen Chinese military aircraft to breach Taiwanese airspace four days before the 20 January inauguration. On the same day, the CCP passed an aggressive new law authorising China’s coastguard to use force, including lethal force, not just in areas owned by China, but in areas subject to disputed claims—like the South and East China Seas, and around Taiwan.
Xi also pushed the fast-forward button in Hong Kong, arresting 55 pro-democracy activists and subjecting pro-democracy voice Jimmy Lai to new charges under Beijing’s punitive and vindictive national security law, apparently including for speaking with foreign media organisations. Xi is likely to purge Hong Kong’s judiciary to end that unhelpful rule-of-law independence that might complicate Beijing’s use of power there.
But Xi’s most telling move was his first phone call with Biden. China’s state-run media organisation Xinhua’s readout tells us that he left it all to Biden to fix things after Donald Trump: Xi told Biden to resume dialogue and cooperation between the US and China, said the US had to get ‘the relationship’ on the right track by avoiding confrontation and, most important of all, stressed that the US president had to ‘respect China’s core interests and act prudently’. Xi gave up nothing as he urged Biden to follow a path of compromise and caution in order to avoid conflict and confrontation.
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s side of the call is better understood in the White House readout than in the Chinese state’s version. It shows more evidence of carefully prepared set-piece diplomacy.
Biden ‘underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan’. He also talked up the potential for the US and China to cooperate on shared challenges, including global health, climate change and preventing weapons proliferation.
Responding to Xi’s soothing call for ‘win–win’ cooperation between the US and China, Biden ‘committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies’.
What’s going on here is interesting for what happens next. Throughout 2020 and in the first two months of 2021, Xi has shown that he’s the opposite of the kind of president he urged Biden to be. Xi is a high-stakes risk-taker and gambler who’s deeply opportunistic and in a hurry to cement his place in CCP history.
Biden doing Xi’s bidding and showing caution, prudence and cooperation while avoiding confrontation and friction would empower Xi to take more and bigger risks, not just in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, but on Taiwan—and with continuing economic aggression and more of the rolling disinformation we’ve seen from China around the pandemic and his government’s awful mismanagement right at the start.
Over the next two months, we’ll begin to see if team Biden is as good at broken play as it is at pre-planned steps. And we’ll see if Biden resists Xi’s siren calls to settle world affairs just between Beijing and Washington, and instead brings in the power and voices of America’s allies and partners, with a core of unity despite discordant notes.
Contrary to Xi’s urging, the Biden administration needs to show a capacity for positive risk-taking through big new moves with US partners like Australia. His term for US–China relations—‘extreme competition’—is a hopeful sign that Biden gets this.
From an Indo-Pacific perspective, Biden’s plans for reviewing the US’s global force posture and China strategy show promise. More US forces operating with Australia through and in expanded facilities in our north and west would be a positive development for Australian, US and regional security. The reviews are sensible, but they need to produce early initiatives and not be lengthy studies that are reasons to avoid action and so miss opportunities while others act.
And outside of these traditional areas, rapid cooperation and co-investment with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government on powerful technologies like quantum computing and unmanned undersea systems will show Xi that Biden’s America isn’t just back, but is able to work in new, unexpected ways with allies and partners.
Nothing is more likely to change Xi’s trajectory and risk calculus than this type of creativity and speed. As Morrison knows from his management of the pandemic, clear decision-making that engages with risk can be a powerful force for good. That’s the real lesson out of the early Biden days.
Michael Shoebridge is director of the defence, strategy and national security program at ASPI.
This article was originally published on The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.